BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

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Back Stories III: Chapter 23
Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The BDH’s find themselves enmeshed in too damned many OCs. But hey, they’re necessary. Plottiness and all.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2587    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

Back Stories Book 3 Chapter 23.

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. And many more thanks to the readers who have waited for too long to get to the end of this one.

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A toothy grin lit a strong, square jaw under an even stronger, squarer haircut. “Morning, Ell!” the patient in the hospital bed called out in greeting.

“Aaron,” Doctor Ellen Rowlee replied with a fond smile. “How are you feeling today?”

“Ready to get off my back, ma’am,” he replied.

“My dear boy, I will be the judge of that.”

As she glanced over his chart, Ellen had to remind herself that her patient, at twenty-six years of age, wasn’t technically a boy. Fully grown and muscular, he must be imposing enough when he carried his anti-riot shield and baton against unruly mobs. But her seventy-year-old eyes tended to focus on the age of minds rather than bodies, and this bright-eyed soldier was limited in real life experience. She doubted that he’d ever bothered to ponder the political complexities of the remote world of Oeneus, beyond those he could handle with a club and some well-aimed blinder spray.

However, Ellen would never hold youth and inexperience against any person, and she couldn’t deny that she’d developed a fondness for this patient, not unlike that a grandmother for a spoiled grandchild.

“Let’s just have a look, shall we?” she said, setting the chart aside.

“If you insist,” he said. “But it’s just a bruise. Really, I hardly feel it.”

Ellen didn’t believe him; she saw how he winced in pain from the effort of sitting up in bed. She didn’t reply, but frowned at him with a gentle sternness and began to remove the bandage binding his left arm to his torso. Aaron had been injured during the first round of riots at the gates of the Alliance base. Some kind of projectile—likely a rock launched from a high powered slingshot—had found a weak spot in his body armor. His shoulder, large with muscle to start with, was now swelled up grotesquely. A deep purple bruise darkened his underarm and was spreading to his bicep, chest, and back.

“You were lucky,” she told him. “No bones broken, and the scans show no ligament or tendon damage. But this is a nasty contusion. You need at least a few more days for the swelling to subside before you can start therapy.”

His face fell, the square jaw losing its shape. It wasn’t hard for Ellen to guess the cause of his disappointment; in the few days she’d been treating Aaron, she’d seen clearly enough that he loved his job. He believed in enforcing the peace, and was bound up in the fraternity of his cause, the need to always “be there” for his “brothers.”

“Aaron, you know that I can’t send you back to your duties as you are.” She gave his healthy arm a comforting pat, then began wrapping a new bandage around his injured arm, pulling it tight enough to keep him immobile. Ellen had raised two sons and one rambunctious daughter; she knew how young people were about following instructions. They didn’t. This one would certainly try doing pushups next to his hospital bed if she didn’t make it impossible for him.

“Don’t misunderstand me, my boy,” she told him as she worked, “visiting with you is one of the highlights of my day, charming, handsome young man that you are. But I mean to be sure that, once you leave here, I won’t ever see you again.”

He was unfazed by her flattery. “Don’t misunderstand me, but I don’t get paid for sitting on my backside. Even with such lovely company as yourself in such a nice place as this.” He gave her another of his brilliant, toothy smiles, then glanced appreciatively about the room. It was a sunny, spacious suite, tastefully decorated in warm comforting tones.

Ellen understood his meaning: the brand new hospital was far more luxurious than the average Oeneus facility. It was part of the Alliance base, physically connected to the military buildings and intended to treat visitors from the Core rather than locals. At the moment, it was also far more quiet and peaceful than the city’s civilian hospitals—a security barrier had been constructed around all the military buildings, constantly patrolled by Aaron’s fellow Tán Hé. In these halls, the unrest in Oeneus’s capitol city was nothing but a distant murmur.

“You should enjoy the time off while you can get it,” Ellen told the young mercenary, then she sighed sadly. “I’m sure your services will still be needed, even a week or two from now. It hasn’t gotten any quieter out there in the city, and isn’t likely to.”

Aaron looked away, his mood darkened by her words, and he suddenly seemed less boyish as his thick jaw clenched and squared up again. “I just don’t get it. What’s wrong with these people, making such a fuss? It’s not like we came here aiming to go to war with them. The Alliance wants to see to their welfare, their security. Why can’t they figure that out?”

“Some people want to look after their own good, I suppose,” she said, smiling to soften her disagreement.

“What, our ways work for every one of the Core worlds, but aren’t good enough for Oeneus?” He shook his head dismissively. “You ask me, I say these Oeneans need our help. They can’t handle it out here on their own. They should be begging the Alliance to take over and civilize the place.” He snorted, a humph of disgust more than amusement. “With the racket they’re making, rioting and all, a takeover’s sure to happen sooner rather than later. I guess the locals just aren’t bright enough to figure out what they’re bringing on themselves by being so—Ow!”

Ellen had pulled the last layer of tape a bit too tight. “I’m sorry, Aaron,” she said as she readjusted the bandage. His words had stung her, but, involuntary slip with the tape aside, she couldn’t really be angry with him. The young man didn’t know that she wasn’t like him, wasn’t a citizen of the Core earning hardship pay for bringing her services out to this distant world. She was a native of Oeneus, and she didn’t see the balance of power quite the way an off-world mercenary would.

But she knew very well the futility of arguing with a young and passionate person. Besides, setting aside the coarseness of his delivery, the young man’s assessment wasn’t entirely wrong. He was seeing something of the heart of the matter, as she understood it.

As soon as she left his room, she fished her uTex from her pocket and headed for the doctor’s lounge. She could use reassurance and kind words from another charmer, one closer to her own age and way of thinking, the man who’d talked her into working in this place for these people: her old friend Trevor Marone.

* * *

Chancellor Richard Westfield was well aware of his reputation as old-fashioned. He wouldn’t have been surprised if a considerable portion of the Alliance government and military referred him as something like: Chancellor Dick Decrepit Moth-eaten Hoary Old Fossil of a Relic Westfield.

Such a judgment was never spoken in his presence, of course, but expressed clearly enough to anyone who could read body language. It’d been evident in the young soldiers who’d moved his goods into his diplomatic vessel before it left Londinium, headed out to his current location in the furthest wilds of the Rim. The two privates had needed all their physical and mental abilities to finish the task, laboring and calculating by turns as they manipulated three fully loaded storage cabinets—each larger and heavier than the two men combined—across decks, up ramps, through narrow corridors, and around a final tight bend into Westfield’s cabin. Their grey uniforms had been dark with sweat by the time they finished.

Perhaps the soldiers did have some reason to frown on his distaste for electronic storage media, as the contents of the three steel cabinets might have been stored on a memory chip smaller than the tip of an infant’s pinky nail. But the risk of making that much information that portable was unacceptable to Dick Westfield. In this day and age, electronic fingers too fine for even a Chancellor’s security system to detect could reach into the virtual space of a computer’s memory and, in a tiny fraction of a second, steal the entire content and history of a million files. An instant’s carelessness could provide fodder to his enemies, allowing them to tie him to a multitude of projects that the general public just wouldn’t understand.

To prevent such a mishap, Westfield maintained tight control over the information that reached his eyes, refusing to use computer terminals for anything but the most basic communications. Paper reports only, he insisted in his characteristically slow-speaking, old-fashioned way, and those must use nothing but codenames. Once a report came into his grasp, it left in ashes or it didn’t leave at all. With no records, plausible deniability was always an option.

Today, Dick Westfield was making a rare exception, taking a chance that made his innards clench with a rare bout of anxiety. Or maybe the images flashing across his desk’s inset monitor were the cause of the unpleasant sensation in his stomach. Like a trickle of loose rubble on a mountaintop, these pictures could be the start of a landslide that would destroy everything he’d worked toward for the past three decades.

“Has anyone else seen these?” Westfield asked.

“I followed orders,” replied the man standing behind Westfield’s right shoulder. The cool voice belonged to an even cooler head, that of Evan Tàizǐ Davis. Codename: Deadbranch, founder of Tán Hé and head of operations on Oeneus. Deadbranch was extremely careful and meticulous in his habits and followed orders without question, but his military bearing could at times be grating, especially his minimal approach to conversation.

Westfield glanced over his shoulder and repeated his question: “Is it at all possible that someone else has seen these?”

“I doubt it.”

“This is important, Evan.”

“I realize that, sir. I am not worried.”

Westfield took a deep breath to steady his patience. “Please explain your confidence.”

“As I said, sir, I followed orders.”

Westfield raised a level stare and held it until Davis continued.

“Chancellor, as you instructed, the connection was made directly from my own terminal. I bypassed the ship’s logs, and used the best encryption available while transferring the images. The satellite had no other contacts while I was running it. I did not detect any ships within range of the tightbeam signal. I wiped the satellite’s memory after the transfer. I am certain that the only copies of these images in existence are the ones on your screen.”

“And my terminal is currently isolated? No one on this ship can connect to it?”

“Of course.”

Westfield nodded, satisfied with the explanation, though not with the amount of prodding it’d taken to get it. He turned back to the images on the monitor and scrolled through them again, finally stopping and zooming in on the shot that best showed the center of the ruin. His focus skipped past the charred remains of wooden buildings and smaller scraps of what might once have been human beings; he was more interested in the wrecked hulls of local transports scattered about the mountain town. These ships hadn’t burned where they sat. Punctures in their sides showed that they’d been pierced and pulled out of the sky.

This was indeed worrisome. Some folk, even the ignorant locals eking out a living on this isolated Rim world, would be able to recognize what had happened here. Luckily, the town was extremely remote, and Westfield had found out about this mess before anyone else. A recently deployed military satellite had detected an explosion and trained its digital eyes to the back side of this world. In the chaos of Oeneus’s current political situation, the information had sat unnoticed in the satellite’s memory for days.

Westfield had come across the alert before any of the busy programmers at the new Alliance base. He’d acted swiftly, ordering Davis to retrieve the images and finding a pretext to ban travel to the mountain town, but he wouldn’t be able to keep this quiet forever. Someone on the planet’s surface would eventually get past his blocks.

“Sir?”

Deadbranch’s impatience was understandable. The man had been waiting, wedged uncomfortably in the crevice between a giant red cabinet and Westfield’s wide desk, for some time.

“I’m sorry, Evan,” Westfield replied. “I just need time to make sense of this.”

“Of course.”

“I imagine you have already.”

“Sir?”

Westfield raised his eyes. Here again was that burdensome facet of Deadbranch’s personality, and the reason for the codename. Politics was a subtle thing, but Evan Tàizǐ Davis, once a Colonel in the Allied armed forces, stubbornly refused to recognize subtlety.

“You’ve already made sense of this,” Westfield expanded.

Deadbranch nodded sharply. “I might have an idea.” He didn’t go on.

Westfield tried to squeeze his lips into a smile, only half succeeding. This was too inconvenient to be amusing. Sometimes it seemed like the military had perfected the art of being literal simply so they could be as brainless as oxen and as blameless as newborn babes when they chose to. Tell me what to do and gorramned right it’ll get done, their curt nods and sharp salutes said. It’ll get done exactly as you say, sir-yes-sir, and not a bit different, because I follow orders. But you made the call, so whatever comes before and after has nothing to do with me. It is solely your problem and all your fault.

“Enlighten me,” Westfield invited. “If you have any theories, even those you’re not entirely sure of, I’d like to hear them.”

Deadbranch only frowned doubtfully, making Westfield sigh.

“Now, Evan. That’s an order.”

Deadbranch gave a sharp nod; the proper courtship steps were done, the command spoke aloud, and the ex-Colonel’s sense of decorum was satisfied. It was finally time to get on with business. Evan waved a questioning hand toward the display on the desk, Westfield nodded his permission, and Deadbranch stepped forward to take over the controls.

“Well, sir, it’s obvious that the town was attacked. But what we need to ascertain is: who did it? I’m sure you’ve noted the fallen ships. You can see from the state of the wreckage that they were not brought down by explosive ordnance.”

Westfield’s eyes focused not on the screen, but on Deadbranch. “It looks like some sort of grapple was used.”

“Which I’ve seen before out here on the Rim, though not in such a brazen attack, and very seldom planetside. They tend to hit solitary ships in deep space.”

“They?”

Deadbranch met Westfield’s eye and nodded.

“Let’s not be hasty, Evan.”

“Of course not, sir. But that’s just the first piece of evidence. A few of the bodies warrant closer examination.”

Deadbranch left the zoom at maximum but panned the field of view westward along the main road through town. The images were fine enough to show the horrible condition of several twisted corpses—these people hadn’t been simply been killed. A number of them appeared to have been dismembered and, to a large extent, devoured.

But the more horribly mangled remains were not the bodies Deadbranch was referring to, as he soon pointed out. He set his finger on a large creature sprawled half off a smoldering roadside walkway.

“Sir, notice the clothing and weaponry on this one, for example. And the state of its… face. It doesn’t appear to be a normal citizen of Oeneus. In fact, it doesn’t appear to be a normal… human.”

Westfield didn’t need to look closer; he spun his chair around to a coffee machine installed in the back bulkhead of his office, placed a mug, and hit a button. He had to walk softly. Deadbranch might be the leader of an invaluable mercenary corps and a trusted partner for the Oeneus project, but he knew nothing of certain other matters.

“Would you like to see the rest?” Deadbranch asked.

Westfield turned back to his desk. “There’s more?”

Davis didn’t reply; he returned his attention to the controls. While the coffee machine steamed and burbled, Westfield watched the view center on a fresh, gaping hole in the hillside on the northwest side of the town.

“Records show that it used to be a fueling platform. The tank went up. Note how the trees are laid flat for quite a distance around the crater. It was a large explosion, and might be responsible for the most interesting thing I’ve found, which is out here …”

He shuffled through the images, choosing a shot that hadn’t drawn Westfield’s notice. It centered on a high stony ridge in the mountains to the west and south of the town; the sharp outcrop was lit yellow-orange by a lowering sun, leaving the valley below in shadows, but on closer study Westfield could make out metallic pieces of debris among the evergreens.

“A ship hit the mountainside before falling into the valley,” Deadbranch explained. “The wreckage is scattered and difficult to assess from this imagery, but sections are intact enough to identify. It’s a freighter, an old model commonly used by pioneers about fifteen years ago. There are signs of modifications, mostly added weaponry. And—here—a mounted grapple.”

The ex-Colonel paused for a moment, giving Westfield a moment to consider the evidence. As soon as Westfield nodded, the mercenary straightened to a full at-attention pose and continued. Despite his reluctance to get started with his explanation, he was clearly eager to share his conclusion.

“Sir, I have no doubt of who, or what, carried out this attack. It presents us with an opportunity. This could be our first chance to actually see how these things live, how their ships function without containment. Maybe we can even get some clue as to where they—”

Westfield cut him off. “First things first, Evan. Do you see any signs of survivors in the town?”

“No, sir. We currently have no satellites capable of motion tracking. There might be something we could requisition from the Alliance military, but—”

“No, this has to stay within the Tán Hé.”

“Understood. My men and I will handle the recon, then.” Deadbranch was practically up on the tips of his toes in his eagerness.

Westfield remembered his coffee, took the mug and cupped it in his palms thoughtfully. “You’re sure no one has noticed the attack? It hasn’t reached the local press?”

“There have been questions asked by those with connections to the small town, and some push back about the travel ban, but no real attention has been paid to the matter. The protest and subsequent unrest at the new Alliance base has dominated headlines during the past week.”

Westfield nodded. “That’s good. That’s quite good. The care we’ve taken in developing instability on this world is paying off.” The coffee was still too hot to sip, so Westfield set down his mug and stood up. The overly furnished cabin left him little room to pace, but he tried anyway, tapping one hand then the other against his desk as he turned from side to side.

“In fact,” he eventually continued, “the misfortune that befell this town could be of aid to us.”

“Sir?”

“What happened here could be interpreted in a certain way...” Westfield nodded to himself as he made his decision. He faced Deadbranch and firmly held the man’s eye. “Evan, I need you to shelve your curiosity about these ‘Reavers’. This isn’t the time for it. No records, no photographs, no souvenirs. It’s vital that every trace of these things is completely destroyed.”

Deadbranch settled back on his heels, clearly disappointed, but his response: “I understand, sir,” was as immediate as it was deferential. Overall, Westfield thought to himself, Davis’s tendency to be a slavish automaton was useful.

“Involve only your most trusted men,” the Chancellor went on, “work at night, use as little light as possible. You can’t be seen, and you can’t leave any trace of your presence.”

“And if I may ask, sir, what is the desired ‘interpretation’?”

Westfield sat down again and folded his hands in front of him. He spoke slowly and clearly. “As soon as possible, I want to see new headlines in the local press. I want every person on this world to understand that this atrocity was carried out by the same insurgents who’ve been protesting the Alliance’s presence. I want the citizens of Oeneus to see what happens when they support rebels—the rebels turn against them.”

And then the citizens will look elsewhere for protection, he added only to himself.

Davis nodded sharply. “Consider it done, sir.” He cut a sharp about-face and left the office.

Westfield twiddled his thumbs, lost in thought, until roused by an urgent chime of his comm.

* * *

Bli-bee-beee. Bli-bee-beee.

She wakes alone in a dark room. A high-pitched electronic chime fills the air. In the same irregular rhythm as the sound, an indicator light flashes green on a bedside monitor. Its pale, sickly glow illuminates sharp edges of leaves and petals in the many bouquets that fill the room.

It must be a good sign, she thinks to herself, staring at the light. Green means health. Right?

Bli-bee-beee. Bli-bee-beee.

“I’m very sorry Ms. Serra, but there’s nothing we could do.” It’s morning now, and the flowers that fill the room are full of color, life and cheer. “There were just too many complications. It’s fortunate that you’re young and strong, or you might not have survived. As it is…” The doctor sighs and continues hesitantly. “I’m afraid that…. Well, it’s because of the way it all happened. You see… ”

She waits, but he doesn’t go on.

Bli-bee-beee. Bli-bee-beee.

“You can tell me,” Inara says softly. Her eyes are still focused on the slow flash of the green light, dim now against powerful sunlight streaming in the window. “Please just tell me.”

All the doctor says is: “There’s someone here to see you.”

She sighs. “I don’t want to see anyone.”

“He insists.”

Bli-bee-beee. Bli-bee-beee.

Inara realizes that the sound isn’t coming from the machine after all. Her eyes follow the insistent chirp to the entrance of her hospital suite. Beside a closed door is a large window, behind the glass is a man she knows: a well-tailored suit on a small frame, dark hair swept back from a soft, handsome face, kind hazel eyes that focus on her with concern.

Bli-bee-beee. Bli-bee-beee.

His arm is raised, his fingers pressing the wall beside the window. He is ringing a bell, wanting to come in. To comfort her. To tell her that they haven’t lost everything. To tell her that they still have each other.

Bli-bee-beee. Bli-bee-beee.

“Do not listen to it,” a voice tells Inara in a familiar accent, the t’s poetically sharp. In the deep blue light of evening, a face of ebony, hair woven into several thick clumps against her graceful skull, hovers over Inara.

“Lina,” Inara whispers. Her throat tightens with gratitude that her friend is with her. She can’t face this loss alone.

Bli-bee-beee. Bli-bee-beee.

The full darkness of night has fallen again. Lina’s eyes, deep black irises set in orbs of white, fill Inara’s view. “No, Inara. You must not. For Buddha’s sake, do not let him in!”

* * *

Inara sat up suddenly, taking in a deep gasp of breath. Her eyes darted around a close, dark space, a very different room than the antiseptic hospital suite of her memory.

The low hum of ship’s engines soothed her senses, and recognition set in. She wilted in relief to find herself back in the home that she’d chosen to replace her ruined life on Sihnon. She’d willingly traded luxury penthouses for this small, rugged shuttle, as well as gourmet delicacies for powdered protein and the finest jasmine teas for bitter, freeze-dried black leaves of uncertain origin.

Bli-bee-beee. Bli-bee-beee.

The chirp that had invaded her dream was coming from the shuttle’s cockpit. She ignored it and looked over her shoulder; Mal was still in her bed, sleeping as deeply and innocently as a child. Perhaps he was just another aspect of the trade she’d made. In the place of a rising political star of Sihnon, a gentle, polished, romantic, attentive man, she’d found a moody thief with a history of violence and, more recently, serious problems with his memory.

She settled onto her elbow and reached out to stroke Mal’s cheek. Despite the obvious problems she and Mal now faced, she wouldn’t trade her new life for the old. She had no doubt about that.

Bli-bee-beee. Bli-bee-beee.

The intercom wouldn’t rest. Perhaps Wash and Zoë had prepared breakfast—or lunch or dinner or whatever meal was proper. Inara had no idea how much time had passed while she slept, but it had to have been more than one standard night, judging from the heaviness that weighed her limbs and thoughts. She’d needed the rest, and likely Mal needed it even more. No matter what they were calling to tell her, she wouldn’t try to wake him. He should sleep as long as he was able.

Bli-bee-beee. Bli-bee-beee.

She pushed the blanket aside. “All right already. I’m coming!”

Her bare feet barely touched the floor before the hatch flew open, banging against the bulkhead and letting in a flood of hard white light of the cargo bay. Zoë’s booted feet stomped heavily into the shuttle, her eyes searching the darkness. She was short of breath, and the few indicator lights shining from the bridge made a thin sheen of sweat glisten on her forehead.

“What the hell are you up to?” she burst out as soon as her eyes fixed on the Companion. “Wash has been tryin’ to get you on the comm!”

“I’m sorry,” Inara said. Her thoughts were still thick and syrupy. “I was… asleep.”

“Well, wake up! We’re surrounded.”

* * *

The military cruiser’s view screen wasn’t really a window. In reality, the front surface of the bridge faced the port side of the ship, and currently it displayed an area of space somewhere behind and below Lieutenant Brady’s right foot. But it appeared that a large portion of the bulkhead before him opened directly into space, allowing the Lieutenant to imagine that he was hovering over the ship out there in the Black, like a hawk preparing to dive at its prey.

Brady wasn’t the only bird in the sky, so to speak. The tiny Firefly was completely hemmed in by carnivorous birds. Every Alliance and Tán Hé ship that Brady had commandeered for this mission was now forming a spherical shell around the pitiful freighter. It wouldn’t be going anywhere, not until he was done with it.

The comm officer called out, “Lieutenant, I have the Chancellor.”

Lieutenant Brady nodded in response and a second, smaller screen opened just to the left of the bridge’s “window” to space. The face that appeared, that of Chancellor Richard Westfield, should have been kind, with the grandfatherly pink cheeks and wispy white hair clinging to his scalp, but the smile on his thin lips was tight and didn’t reach his eyes.

“What is it?” the Chancellor asked. No, he demanded, and Brady felt his spine stiffen. Though Westfield’s voice was soft, his manner had an unpleasant edge that unsettled the Lieutenant.

“We have his ship surrounded, sir,” Brady said.

“Whose ship?”

“The final subject, sir. Captain Malcolm Reynolds.”

Westfield’s stare was blank.

“Um… the legal matter with the Office of Professional Responsibility, if you’ll recall….”

“Right.” For an instant the Chancellor frowned and his eyes lit with something like impatience, but then he looked aside and nodded. “Right. This is important.” He took in a deep breath and his smile returned, though it remained tight. “That’s good work, Lieutenant.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“And you know what needs to be done?”

“Of course. My orders are clear.”

“Carry on. And please notify all the concerned parties for me. I’m a little…. tied up here.”

Brady nodded sharply. “You needn’t worry, sir. I’ll take care of everything.”

Westfield muttered, “Thank you, Lieutenant,” and the screen went blank.

Brady stood for a few seconds, pondering Westfield’s abrupt manner. Life must be complicated for a Chancellor, he told himself, especially one attempting to handle the unrest on Oeneus. At times like this, it was better to be merely a Lieutenant, faced with tasks that might take time and effort but were straightforward in nature.

The present matter, for example. The hunt for Malcolm Reynolds may have stretched on for weeks, but one errant blip on a screen, properly reported and investigated, had been all it’d taken to get things moving forward. Suddenly, it appeared that Brady’s task would be wound up before the end of the day.

* * *

Mal was surprisingly easy to wake, and in her hurry Inara didn’t have time to dwell on disappointment or grief that his state was unchanged. She had him dressed in minutes, then left him sitting on the bed while she fired up the scanner in the shuttle’s cockpit.

Her breath caught when she saw the number of ships surrounding Serenity. It took her a moment to sort them all out. By the time she realized that one was approaching, it was already hovering under the Firefly’s nose. Clanks of Serenity’s docking equipment rang through the hull, and she hurried to the shuttle’s hatch, quietly cracking it open. The lights in the shuttle were low, and no one in the cargo bay would notice her watching from above.

Wash and Zoë stood near the main doors of the cargo bay, Zoë with her right hand clenched next to her thigh where her holster should have been. Wash fidgeted and paced until the airlock’s inset hatch swung open, then he folded his arms across his stomach and forced himself to be still.

A crowd of armored, armed men entered cautiously, followed by an officer carrying a clipboard. He stepped directly to Zoë and handed her a small stack of papers. Inara couldn’t make out what was being said, but the body language in the exchange was clear enough: the officer made a demand that Zoë didn’t care for. Neither did Wash, who fidgeted with renewed anxiety while his wife tried to work her way around whatever the officer wanted.

The man had little patience for her efforts. After barely half a minute he waved his soldiers forward, and they spread through the cargo bay, guns raised, carrying out a well-drilled search pattern.

Zoë and Wash exchanged a look of despair, then Wash called the officer back. After another testy exchange, the pilot slumped and waved a hand toward the aft staircase and up. The Alliance officer’s eyes followed Wash’s gesture, and Inara gasped and involuntarily jumped back into the darkness. The man had looked right at her.

Wash was sending these Alliance soldiers up to her shuttle.

Āi yā!,” she muttered softly. “Huài le!” Carefully, she pushed the hatch closed, then hurried to Mal and knelt before him. She took his face in her hands. “Mal, if you have it in you to wake up, now would be a good time! Please hear me! Please, if there’s any way…”

He didn’t respond in the slightest, and she had to resist a strong urge to shake him. Instead she stood again and walked a circle around the shuttle, resisting another urge to wring her hands in an unseemly fit of melodrama.

“What do they want?” she asked the empty space. “What do they want with Mal? Maybe it’s not Mal. Maybe they’re after me. Merciful Buddha—if only!”

Heavy footsteps were approaching, so she did the same as Wash had in the cargo bay: forced herself to be still, facing the door expectantly.

The Alliance officer entered, flanked by two armed soldiers. Inara had a moment to notice that Zoë and Wash were not with them before her eyes returned to the officer’s face. She knew this man.

“Lieutenant Brady!” she gasped.

Upon entering the shuttle, Brady’s attention had fixed on Mal, but now he looked at Inara. His eyes squinted while he searched his own memory. “Ah, yes. You were with this group before, on Niflheim. The Companion.”

She stepped forward and put on her most gracious smile, hoping that it didn’t look as forced as it felt. “Inara Serra. I’m pleased to see you again. Whatever brings you back to our ship?”

Instead of taking her offered hand, the man slipped a digital display sheet between her fingers. “I’m here on business ma’am,” he said formally.

Inara looked at the paper: it was a picture of Mal, surrounding by a fair amount of small print that she couldn’t begin to process.

“Captain Reynolds,” Brady said, stepping away from Inara. “You’ll need to come with us.”

“You can’t,” Inara said in a rush. “He has to stay here. He’s sick, and he needs my care. He can’t understand…”

The pair of soldiers had already crossed the shuttle. They pulled Mal up by his elbows and guided him to the hatch, hurried by a wave from the Lieutenant.

Inara followed. “Are you arresting him?”

Brady glanced back at her as the group crossed the cargo bay’s catwalk. “Should I?”

“Of course not! That’s not what I… But… but you can’t just come onto a ship and take a person! What possible reason do you have for this?”

Brady’s reply was annoyingly casual and rambling. “Captain Reynolds is needed in relation to a legal matter, and my orders are to take him into custody. I could place him under arrest if that would make you feel better, but it isn’t necessary. It would only make for more paperwork. Perhaps you like that kind of thing. Myself, I’d rather just take care of business and move on with my life. Paperwork is such a hassle.”

Inara realized that the Lieutenant was intentionally taking up time while his men rushed Mal down the stairs. They were already stepping onto the cargo bay deck.

“What legal matter?” she interrupted. “I demand that you explain!”

Brady shrugged dismissively. “I’m afraid I can’t. I’m not a lawyer.”

Inara hurried past the Lieutenant, past Zoë and Wash who stood slumped and flanked by soldiers, and beat the group leading Mal to the main doors. She firmly set herself in their way. “I insist that you make an effort! This cannot be legal, and there are paths I can take—”

She was cut off when Brady grabbed a stack of forms from Zoë’s hand and thrust them into Inara’s face. The front page was covered with thick paragraphs of fine print. The only thing easily legible was the heading printed boldly across the top: Allied Planets Office of Legal Matters: Form F36-2E Permit for Seizure of Citizens/Part-time Citizens of Alliance Settlements.

Inara took the packet and scanned it as quickly as she could. She found Mal’s name in the smaller print on the front page, while the last page held several signatures and two raised notary seals.

“I’m sure everything you need is in there,” Brady said stiffly. “If you have any questions, contact the Alliance Legal Offices on Oeneus, or the Office of Professional Responsibility on Sihnon. I’m sure they can explain this matter to your satisfaction.”

Inara stood with her mouth open as the soldiers pushed past her and led Mal out, sealing the cargo bay door behind them.

* * *

Translations Āi yā: Damn: interjection for surprise or regret, Huài le: shit on my head: interjection for bad news, ruined, spoiled;

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COMMENTS

Tuesday, December 20, 2011 6:34 PM

EBFIDDLER


*sounds of celebration at the return of Back Stories*

Welcome back, Mal4prez. Your posting is most welcome. This chapter has several intriguing developments. I'm wondering how Dr Ellen fits into this, and her connection with Trevor Marone. I'm still wondering about Marone's role: you left me with an ambiguous impression of him. I liked your inclusion of details about Westfield: his trust in paper records vs electronic; and Lt Brady's impressions (how he "should have been kind" and how his smile was "tight and didn't reach his eyes"). Thank you for picking up on Inara's story. I liked the way the beeping connected her dream/memory to the present. I hope you will continue to weave her backstory in as this develops. I want to know why Lina insisted that she not see him. I REALLY want to know what's up with the Chancellor's interest in Mal as "the final subject." And what is this about a Permit for Seizure of Citizens/Part-time citizens of the Alliance? Will Inara find something in the fine print? And you've let the Alliance take Mal away, with him in such a state! (And, not a word about all the crewmembers that you left stuck in that cave, other than obliquely through the Chancellor and Deadbranch's conversation about the Reaver attack.) M4P, thank you for posting. Your whole series has been such a good read. Please post more soon.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011 6:38 PM

BRUCEPLUTO


I really enjoy the story arc you have going here MFP. Chancellor Richard (Tricky Dick) Westfield trying to conceal the plain evidence of a Reaver attack. I’m getting two reasons why he may be doing it, panic control for one, and two, seems like the fellow may be looking for an edge, part of which might include a financial gain? Not certain of that yet….but I’m sure you’ll show us more.

Anyway, I like the exchange between Doctor and patient, Doc Rowlee & Aaron, also I’m liking Evan, codename: Deadbranch, Davis. Be interesting to get a little background info on him.

I’m very curious why Mal is being taken off the ship. Not that he doesn’t have a ton of folks searching for him, for all sorts of reasons, still, I’ve got some catch-up reading to do.

Very interesting tone for this episode, I’ll be glad to get the next one soon as you put it up.

BPZ

Tuesday, December 20, 2011 7:30 PM

EBFIDDLER


Oh, yeah, and about the OC's: Don't sweat it. I actually *like* reading about your OC's. You've created a good number of very interesting ones, and I really wouldn't mind reading more about them. In some cases, a lot more.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011 4:27 AM

YINYANG


OMG, SO EXCITED! :D

(Now I'll actually go back and read this.)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011 4:51 AM

BYTEMITE


Hooray, you're back!

This is getting even worse, isn't it? Somehow I doubt that they're interested in helping him, but far more interested in using him as a test subject.

Hopefully he's deteriorated too far to be useful for them, so they'll let him go, but something tells me they don't need him alert to experiment on him.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011 6:14 AM

AMDOBELL


It has been so long since your last chapter in March that I had to go back and re-read it to make the most of this development. Poor Mal, he never gets a break. Hopefully the next chapter will not be so long in coming but it felt odd having the Captain bundled off so mercilessly and everyone just standing by. I hope Inara's Friends in High Places can find something in the small print to get him back. Ali D :~)
MERRY CHRISTMAS ONE AND ALL!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011 7:44 AM

NUTLUCK


Weird my post disappeared. Anyways glad to see you back writing.

Friday, December 23, 2011 5:51 AM

PLATONIST


Interesting as usual, Mal is part of an experiment.

Really like how powerless Inara is here, I can imagine Zoe doing an eye roll when she turned over the paper work...and how Inara almost incriminated Mal by asking about an arrest.

Hope we don’t have to wait too long for more.

Friday, December 23, 2011 9:56 AM

MAL4PREZ


Thank you for the feedback!

I have the next chapter in beta, but my beta reader's a little busy with Christmas. I hope to get posted next week, and another chapter soon to follow.

Almost done!


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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

“Or how to make the most effective use of medical waste incendiaries to get rid of our bodies,” Wash chimed in.


Back Stories III, Chapter 24
Mal returns to a few familiar places.

Back Stories III: Chapter 23
The BDH’s find themselves enmeshed in too damned many OCs. But hey, they’re necessary. Plottiness and all.

Back Stories III, Chapter 22
Inara tells the story of why she left the Core. Well, half of it anyway.

Back Stories III, Chapter 21
The battle with the Reavers continues, and Mal makes a choice. All decisions have consequences.

Back Stories III, Chapter 20
Finally a little Mal POV, but it doesn't last long.

Back Stories III, Chapter 19
The trials and tribulations of an older, wiser River Tam.

Back Stories Book III, Chapter 18
The aftermath of an unexpected encounter. Except—not all of the crew are accounted for…

Back Stories Book III, Chapter 17
A lovely day in the mountains: friendly locals and fresh air under a clear blue sky. What could possibly go wrong?

Back Stories Book III, Chapter 16.
Zoë tells of her soiree with terrorists on Oeneus.