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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
The lighter side of torture.
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 2931 RATING: 9 SERIES: FIREFLY
The Treasure of Lei Fong Wu
35th TAU -48:40
The new “headquarters” was hardly worthy of the name. It made the cafeteria they had vacated seem spacious. But the White Tigers of the 34th had no problem making-do; the unit was famed for its adeptness with improvisation. The room was a largish space, part workshop, part office, for the maintenance of the cooling system array they were now within. All around them pipes hissed and steamed with excess heat from the huge reactor several decks overhead. It also shielded them from passive detection: both the complex network of cooling apparatus and the radiation shielding from the reactor kept sensors from penetrating this particular space.
The men had made their camp on the machine shop side of the room, while he took the office for his own. The prisoners they had scattered over three decks. This section had no end to odd little rooms built around the huge cylindrical reactor, and he knew better than to confine them all in one space. That’s how escapes happened.
His sergeant approached with a bow, followed by three new men. He wrinkled his brow – the sergeant was to have awakened more than thirty by now.
“Major!” the sergeant said as he was beckoned forward. “I have come to report an issue with the hibernation chamber. The capsules are refusing to open as directed. They have come online one at a time, and only one an hour. I left two of the men at the chamber, one to guard and one to assist in the revivification. These three are ready to claim their billets and report for duty.”
“Only one an hour? Explain this delay!”
“Sir! The capsules are ultimately controlled by the central computer. They seem to be responding to a program issuing from the computer, and cannot be overridden with local controls.”
“Unacceptable! At this rate it will take weeks to reawaken our comrades!”
“Sir! One of the men I left has some experience in these matters. He said he would try to determine the programmed cause and issue a bypass. I regret to report that he did not seem hopeful.”
“We will carry on with what we have, then,” the Major agreed, reluctantly. “See the men to their billets and tour the perimeter defenses. Ensure that our camp is secure.”
“Sir! Yes, Sir!” the sergeant said, leaving with a bow.
“Ridiculous!” the Major spat as he returned to his work. There were close to a hundred White Tigers still in hibernation. To call them forth one at a time – especially after initially releasing a dozen of them, all at once – was ludicrous. It would be difficult to secure the area without more manpower – especially after the losses involved in taking the prisoners. As it was two men were on light duty, cooking and tending their more seriously wounded comrades, while the others walked patrols or set up fire support positions. They would need at least a dozen more to sufficiently fortify their position and embark on their next highest priority: locating the Master.
It bothered him that the prisoners had declared the Master dead. From his cursory interrogation, they had told him that he and his men had been held in suspension for over a century, and that the ‘verse had changed much since then. He rubbed the back of his neck as he considered, his fingers automatically finding the scar that all the White Tigers bore as a testament to their loyalty. A loyalty that may be long past. As loathe as he was to admit it, there were plenty of signs that a significant amount of time had passed, perhaps even a hundred years. If that were the case, then there was at least a possibility that his Master had, indeed, died. Much could happen in a hundred years.
But that did not release him from his duty: see to his men, find the Master, and receive orders from him. He would not consider any other course of action until it was established beyond doubt that Shan Yu, May His Wisdom Persist For A Thousand Years, had indeed joined his ancestors.
His biggest concern now that they had removed to a more secure location was a lack of information. Cortex links and communication did not function, at least in this part of the ship. Neither did lifts, secured doors, and a thousand other things he desired. He needed to know what was going on, first on this ship, and then in the greater ‘verse beyond. The last time he had breathed air they had been in orbit about Yuan, the Master was in firm power, and the great military of Yuan was preparing for a fresh push at the cowardly republicans of Xiao. Now?
He did not know. And that was unacceptable. He did, however, have one source of information at his disposal, and one which may well shed light on the current tactical situation. After finishing his tea, he stood and sought out Lieutenant Kim, an excellent officer from T’ien, despite his Korean ancestry. Kim was the next most senior officer that the computer had deigned to release.
“You have control, here,” he stated. “I’m going to begin the interrogation of the prisoners. The communication blackout must continue, so send a messenger should additional information come in.”
“Sir! Yes, Sir!” was the instant reply.
The Major took his time going to the makeshift cells. They were not as secure as he would prefer – they were merely storage closets and utility rooms – but they did lock, and the prisoners were well-secured within. The stoutest of the rooms he had reserved for the two Sinic commandos, easily the most dangerous of the five. The old man he had dumped into a laundry closet, while the big Anglic man and woman had been secured in a maintenance room. They were closest, so he began with them.
The sound of their voices reached him before he even got to their door. They were bellowing at each other in shrill, angry tones, apparent even in their barbaric tongue. Some lover’s quarrel, perhaps? He hoped so. Such ties would be easy to exploit in an interrogation.
The key was to inflict fear on them, very casually at first, like a single seed of terror that would propagate in the darkness of their minds. If you came into a room with malice in your voice and made your intentions to cause harm clear to your subjects, they were more likely to give less-than-accurate accounts. Oh, they would spill some facts, providing they had no resistance training, but they would often leave out key details in the face of a brutal onslaught. That style of interrogation was done by amateurs. He had studied the psychological vagaries of the art with the Master, himself, and knew better. Always give your subject the hopeful possibility of escape without pain, if they cooperate. Never make torture seem inevitable. The hope of reprieve was often enough to loosen a tongue – the facts revealed could always be verified under more extreme inquisition.
He prepared himself, putting his mind into character before he opened the door. The two fell silent until he had taken several steps into the room and regarded the two figures, hoodwinked and suspended by their hands from overhanging pipes.
“Oh, thank God!” the big man said in a relieved voice – did he think he was being rescued? “Can we please get on with the torture, now? Please?”
That took the Major aback. Usually his subjects begged not to be tortured.
“All in good time,” he said softly. “I think that perhaps we can avoid such unpleasantness if you will be so kind as to tell me what I want to know . . .”
“I’m inclined to oblige,” the man said, helpfully. “What do you want to know?”
“Everything,” the Major began. “Let us start with who you are and what are you doing on this ship.”
“I’m Malcolm Reynolds, and I’m Captain of a Firefly-class light transport ship. I was hired by a band of Sinic mercenaries to bring them out to this heap, which has been lost for about a century. The lady hanging across the room is Inara Serra, a licensed Companion and a royal pain in the ass. I’d be much obliged if you’d let me watch while you torture her. You can start with me, if you want, I just want to see her suffer a bit, too.”
“You . . . you . . . Wo cao ni ba bei zi zu zong!”
“See what I mean? Can’t keep a civil tongue.”
“Let us go back to the beginning. What year is it?”
“Fair enough. It’s about a hundred an’ twenty-two years after you took your nap, from what we’ve been able to tell.”
“I . . . I see. And who controls Yuan, now?”
“The Alliance. Hell, Alliance controls damn near everything.”
“You would know it as the Sino-American Alliance,” the woman explained, calmly. “It is now known as the Universal Alliance.”
“The . . . but that is merely a treaty body, an informal association.”
“Was,” corrected the man – Reynolds? “They got a li’l big for their breaches, last few years. They are now the central, Federal authority. Claim to have sovereignty over everythin’ in th’verse. Got a lotta big ships an’ fancy lasers to enforce that claim.”
“A respected member of the Alliance, one of the chief Core worlds, after Sihnon and Londinium. A federal republic, to be technical. There was a civil war a few years back, one which involved Yuan, but the planet, for the most part, maintained its loyalty to the Alliance.”
“So where are we now?”
“In orbit around a moon known as Hecate . . . are you familiar with it?”
“A barbaric colony at the edge of the ‘verse,” dismissed the Major. “Perhaps it shall be the first in our Master’s new empire.”
“That’s gonna be hard to manage on a couple o’ accounts,” warned Reynolds. “Mostly, but not entirely, ‘cause your master’s been dead for almost as long as you been nappin’.”
“There was a coup soon after this ship was commissioned,” explained the Companion. “A group of ministers overthrew Shan Yu and re-established the Empire. I do not know why you were not awakened and informed,” she said, simply.
“They feared us, no doubt,” murmured the Major. “We were the elite, and pledged to the Master unto death. We are honor-bound to avenge him.”
“Everyone who played a role in that coup is dead,” the Companion assured him. “Long dead. I’m afraid you have awakened without a purpose.”
“We shall see,” the Major said, his mind spinning. “Tell me, how many more of these mercenaries are there?”
“Perhaps a dozen,” the Companion said.
“Less,” corrected Reynolds.
“It was a round number,” Serra insisted. “And meant to convey a relative guide to our strength. We are – they are scavengers,” she continued. “A criminal Tong. Nothing more. This ship is ripe for salvage. We were unaware that it was inhabited.”
That almost made sense. The vultures of the Black were ever in search of fresh corpses to strip – that had been true even in his day -- and the Sun Tzu would be a juicy target. “So why was the ship not gutted long ago?”
“It was lost,” answered the man. “Took a while to lay hands on it.”
“And your purpose was . . . merely commercial?”
“Cash money,” agreed Reynolds. “Nothin’ political nor personal.”
“And what of your clients?”
“Them? I expect the same. A Tong from the Rim. Real hard-case outfit. If it’s all the same to you, I’d be happy to be on my way, let y’all sort it out over a cup o’ tea, or whatever. Hell, you can keep her, too. No extra charge.”
“Sure, she’s got a few miles on her, but plenty o’ action left.”
“Ni jen tai hei le!”
“Might wanna gag her, though. She got a temper.”
“You seem oddly cavalier about a woman you defended with a sword against overwhelming odds just a few hours ago.”
“I’m a complex sorta fella that way,” agreed Reynolds. “Got a thing for lost causes. ’Sides, the sword was her idea, not mine. Some silly custom. I’m s’posed to do some impressive deed to prove I’m worthy of her affection. I guess it’s some sorta discount program, or somethin’. Promotional.”
“Chou wang ba dan! You lousy petty thief! Oh, you are so dead!”
“Y’ask me, just bein’ locked in here with her has been an impressive deed. So I’d take it as a kindness if you’d pull me outa here, take me somewhere nice an peaceful afore y’all start yankin’ out my toenails. ‘Cause otherwise I’m like to burst a vessel listenin’ to her go se.”
“Ugh! Gan ni niang . . .”
“See? All that fancy Companion trainin’ an’ she still cusses like a infantryman.”
“Enough!” the Major insisted before the woman could launch another profane tirade. “I shall inquire of the others to verify your story. Should it prove valid, we shall see what to do with you. In the mean time, you shall be my guests. I will be back soon.”
“What?” the man shrieked. “You’re just gonna leave me alone in here with her? You can’t do that!”
“It seems to be for the best,” he said, growing tired of the bickering already.
“At least knock me unconscious, for Buddha’s sake! C’mon! Be a sport! I’m sufferin’ here!”
The Major left the two swearing accusingly at each other – it had not gone like he had planned. But it was unlikely that the pair would have any more valuable information than they had revealed. The man was obviously a low-class freighter captain, and the woman, despite her vaunted Companion training, would no doubt be as vacuous as the rest of her gender.
The commandos, though . . . members of a Tong, Reynolds had said. They would be more fruitful, he knew. And perhaps the old man – a clergyman, he had claimed – perhaps he would have more useful information. Old men scare easily. It at least gave him something concrete to look forward to. The idea that he and his men were so far removed from their proper time and place was beyond disconcerting. A ‘verse in which the Master had been removed, like some Rim-world generalissimo, and not even the Empire of Yuan remained . . . he felt like a dinosaur. He had doubted the veracity of the prisoners’ claims, at first, but the story was too fantastic to dismiss as subterfuge.
So where did that leave him? In command of a company of crack troops, fanatically loyal and well trained . . . and with no real purpose. His heart fell deeper with every step he took.
He did have some consolation. He was an ambitious man, of course – one did not rise through the ranks to command an elite unit without a healthy dose of ambition – and so far in his life his ambition had been capped by his situation. Should it prove true that his Master was, indeed, dead, and even his killers were long removed from the possibility of vengeance, perhaps his men would consent to follow him to a more personal glory. This was a magnificent warship, after all. Should they gain control of it, they could easily take the colony moon below – Hecate should have developed quite a population in the last century. Wresting control of it would be a simple matter, and no doubt it could serve as an excellent base of operations for future endeavors.
With the wisp of the idea of a personal empire buoying his spirits, he went downstairs to confront the commandos. Maybe things were not as dark as he had initially thought.
“ . . . are the most stupid, idiotic, and completely ineffectual man it has ever been my displeasure to know! I can’t believe you! You just sold out the Imperials and offered me to our captors – invited them to torture me! You wanted to watch! Have you any idea what you’ve done?”
“Yep,” Mal agreed calmly. “Bought us a little time.”
“Time? Mal, in case your keen intellect failed to pick up on this, but we are hanging from a pipe in the ceiling in some forgotten closet on a gigantic ship that has a little less than two days before it makes a dramatic plunge back into the core of a gas giant. I don’t see how buying time helps matters.”
“’Cause you fail t’see the big picture,” Mal agreed pleasantly. “Now that Mr. Torture’s got somethin’ to chew on, he’s gonna go check it out. Probably take some time. At least an hour or so. Which means he ain’t gonna be stickin’ his pointy little head in here until he’s ready to corroborate the data. Which gives me a window to go ahead and implement my fool-proof escape plan.”
“Oh, I’m giddy with anticipation!” Inara spat.
“I’m sure.” Mal began to lift his feet and swing from his hands – a painful maneuver, but Mal could handle pain. It was an old friend. He kept swinging until he could pull his knees up and put his boot-top near his fingertips. In moments he had withdrawn a four inch long knife blade from his boot top and began cutting through the plastic handcuffs. They had searched him reasonably thoroughly – well enough to discover and confiscate his normal weapons – but they hadn’t given his boots much of a look. Not that it would have helped. Mal’s little knife was disguised at the hilt as a buckle on his new black boots. They would have had to take x-rays to find the thing.
It only took moments to cut through the plastic that tied his hands together, and in seconds his boots hit the floor with a thud. He pulled off the hood and rubbed his sore wrists while he regarded the hanging form of Inara. They had taken her armor away, leaving her in her attractive gown. She didn’t look haughty or powerful now, merely lonely and frightened. It would have moved his heart towards pity if he wasn’t so gorram pissed-off at her.
“That’s better!” he declared.
“What? You’re free? Mal! Let me down!”
“After all that nasty stuff you just said about me?” he asked, a shocked note in his voice. “I’ve half a mind to leave you swingin’ there ‘till our friend gets back.”
“If you’ve half a mind, that’s a hundred percent improvement!” she insisted. “Get me the hell down!”
“Hold on, Ambassador, I’m scopin’ the situation.”
“Held captive by ancient fanatics who are sworn to uphold and defend the whims of the greatest sadistic tyrant of modern history,” she reminded him.
“Well, there is that,” he admitted. “But I was thinkin’ more of our tactical situation. I think I can get us through this door – but I ain’t gotta clue where the others are. Or if there are any guards out there.”
“I seriously doubt it!”
“You got a reason for that belief?”
“If they had enough men to station guards, they wouldn’t worry with all this bondage. They would strut around in front of us and try to make frightened of their strength. Men are like that. Especially the military.”
“Hmm. You may well have a point. On the way over, I only counted ‘bout a dozen or so sets o’ boots. And the way they acted, that’s pure infantry. Likely Special Forces of some sort. Not straight-up Intelligence.” He took a prolonged glance around the room, finding it dimly lit, oppressively small, and utterly lacking in handy weapons or tools. “Not sure you wanna get down from there. Ain’t much to see. ‘Course, I’m sure you charge a little more for this kind of bondage stuff.”
“All right!” he said, chuckling. In a moment she joined him on the floor, rubbing her wrists and moving around her aching shoulders.
“So how do we get out?” she asked, ignoring his childish behavior. “Without attracting attention, that is.”
“Through the door.”
“Gosh, you’re smart. What makes you think you can get through this door?”
“It’s one of those things we petty thieves are good at,” he shot back.
Inara had no ready reply. That gave Mal time to examine the door and frame, and all the other particulars of the room, before he stood back and studied the matter.
“Now, I ain’t an expert on astronaval architecture or nothin’, but if the Yuanese stuck with established universal safety protocols . . .” he said, trailing off.
“Yes?” Inara asked impatiently.
“Well, this is a mechanical door. Not an automatic, just like on Serenity. Not really a blast door, nor properly pressurized. So . . .” He bend down and ran his finger over the locking mechanism again. “Standard Universal Safety Protocol mandates an easy manner of two-way access through non-pressure zone doorways. That don’t mean it can’t lock, ‘cause it is. But if there was a fire or radiation, have to be able to get through here, somehow.” He glanced up at her. “You ain’t got a toolbox concealed in your bodice, do you? Make this a mite easier.”
“Not as such.”
“’Fraid o’ that. All right, plan B.” He fingered the nut that held the lockplate to the doorframe, then ran his hands over his coat. He pulled one of the wide metal buckles up and twisted it around until it fit ungainly over the nuthead. With considerable effort and concentration he was able to move it three quarters of a turn before he had to back off and adjust his grip. In a few moments the nut fell into his hand. With a grin he used the same buckle as a wedge and pried the cover of the lock off. He looked up at Inara with a satisfied grin.
“Hooray. Mal opened another box. Gold star.”
It took only another moment to open the lock from the inside. Mal did so, peeked outside, and then pulled the door back closed.
“What? Mal, what are you waiting for?”
“Some acknowlegement would be nice.”
“I just single-handedly arranged our escape. I think that’s noteworthy.”
“What, you need an ego stroke now?”
“But does it qualify as a worthy deed?”
“Saving your skin doesn’t qualify.”
“But saving yours might.”
“Whatever. You want a parade? First thing, I promise.”
“I just wanna fulfill my obligation about the sword.”
“Get off the gorram sword Mal! Hump the sword! I’m sick of hearing about it!”
Mal shrugged. “Guess this don’t qualify. All right, we hang a left and then go like we owe a Reaver the last dance at the Midsummer ball!”
“Has anyone ever told you that you had an impressive grasp of poetic imagery?”
Mal considered. “It’s been said a time or two.”
“They were doing you a kindness.”
HAMMERSTRIKE TEAM ONE -47:21
Julian stared out of the shuttle’s forward viewport at the mammoth ship. They were almost five miles away from it, and it still dominated the scene. He had been on plenty of Alliance ships, some even larger than this, but there was a difference. Alliance warships were designed to inspire fear, of course, but a fear based on their ruthless efficiency. This monstrosity was designed to inspire fear based purely on grandeur and majesty. There was no doubt that this was an Imperial ship.
He thought back to the war, and how differently things would have gone if the Imperial Faction had, indeed, discovered this during the conflict. It would have altered the entire outcome of the war. The Imperials would have broken the siege and captured Yuan, consolidating their powerbase. They could have easily defended it with those big lasers. And they would have turned Yuan’s industrial might towards supplying the Browncoats and the other factions. The Alliance would have fallen.
The thought did more than frighten him, or give him an appreciation for the luck, divine intervention or whim of fate that denied this war machine to his enemies. It made him acutely aware of how important his current mission was. If that ship would have been pivotal to the Imperial Faction then, it would be devastating in the hands of the remnant known as the Yellow Sash Tong. Especially with Dr. Tam’s evil terror weapon.
He could not fail. He must not fail. He would not fail.
He just wished he had better tools than this at hand to help him do the job.
The shuttle was filled with the mercenaries they had hired, “Ranji’s Rangers”, a motley collection of thugs and ex-soldiers commanded by Ranji Singh, and they looked the part. Cast-off armor and insignia from a dozen war-time units from several factions, including some corporate logos he had noted, made them look more like a jumble sale than a military unit. At least their weapons were modern. He had seen to that. It wasn’t his ideal, but it was what he had to work with. At least Singh commanded enough of their respect to keep them in line to his face. He had brought along two of his own people to watch his back, just in case.
The other shuttle had the odds-and-ends they had cobbled together at Madonna, thirty five former inmates, prison guards, security officers, and random warm bodies who had demonstrated a knowledge of the correct end of a gun to hold and not much else. Six of his men had accompanied them with private shoot-to-kill orders for anyone who got out of line. They weren’t a military unit, not even close. More like a pack of wild dogs with a few tame ones to keep them in line. They had the easy job, entering through the far aft supply dock and securing the Engine Room. If they didn’t get lost in that behemoth, he amended. The Rangers would head for the Bridge. Between the two of them they should be able to capture the ship. Or destroy it. If things didn’t get out of hand.
The whole thing stank of improvisation and frontier vigilantism, the very stuff he detested. But the alternative loomed in front of him and reminded him why it was so important to complete the mission.
“Coming up on the dock, Sir,” Austin, the pilot, remarked. “No anti-ship defenses detected. It does look like some main systems are back on line, though – we’re being tracked by ship’s control telemetry.”
“Any way to stop it?”
“Sir, they know we’re here, if they’re looking. Nothing we can do about it now. But unless they can activate and man the anti-ship defenses, there’s nothing to stop us from docking, either.”
“That’s a big pile of if,” noted Julian.
“Go ahead and take us in. Gently.”
“Listen up, gentlemen!” he called out to the mob in the cargo section of the shuttle. “We dock in just a few moments. I want to re-emphasize just how important it will be to take the prisoners alive. We get less for corpses. Return fire if you’re fired upon, but keep it non-lethal if you can. I see anyone take any unnecessary risks, or use inappropriate firepower, I’ll shoot you myself. That’ll be just more loot for the rest. Do we have an understanding?”
There were shiftless nods and unenthusiastic grunts of affirmation. Julian turned back to the console.
“Shuttle One reports a successful dock, Sir,” Austin reported.
“Good. Our ETA?”
“Time to heat up, then. Singh, get your recon squad out quick, the moment we hit the lock and establish pressure. Sweep and clear, secure the lock, and post four guards. We’ll need to make sure we have a place to run to, if things go poorly.”
“Understood, Sir,” the Sikh commander nodded. He, at least, was a professional soldier, a former Browncoat from the Sikh community on Persephone. He had eked out a meager existence since the war by providing contract security for nobles and corps all over the Rim. His men were a disgrace, even by Browncoat standards, but they were loyal to him. And at least some of them knew their stuff.
“One minute, Sir!”
“Let’s keep this clean, Singh. No more bodies than we have to. And no looting until we can inventory everything. We do this right, we all retire after this.”
“That is my intention, Sir,” Singh nodded.
“Mine, too,” Julian admitted. “After this case . . . might be nice not to worry about the whole humpin’ ‘verse for a change.”
ALPHA TEAM REMNANT, BRIDGE -47:15
“Wash? Come in.”
“Wash, here. That you, Heavenly Master?”
“Indeed. I have some disturbing news, I’m afraid. Do you have access to the Sun Tzu’s telemetry monitor?”
“Uh . . . there. Yes, I do, it’s in front of me – Huh choo-shang tza-jiao duh tzang-huo! What the hell is that?”
“An interloper,” Master Lei said calmly. “I believe it’s the same vessel we evaded at Salisbury. Bounty hunters. I know not how, but they have tracked us here.”
“Well, shoot ‘em down! Don’t wait for my permission!”
“Regrettably, the anti-ship weapons will not function until full power is restored from the Engine Room.”
“Uh . . . that’s bad.”
“Indeed. The general and I were discussing options. We had conjectured that they would attempt to destroy the Sun Tzu from without – but then they launched a brace of shuttles. It appears that they are going to attempt to dock.”
“Well . . . you have to admit, it beats getting nuked out of hand.”
“Indeed. They will instead try to wrest from us what little control we have.”
“Good luck! Even we can’t figure out how to run this thing. Plus they’ll have to find us.”
“That is true. But the situation is even more complex. I have been discussing the situation with the electronic spirit of my honorable ancestor. It assures me that the main computer will make no distinction between our people and the bounty hunters.”
“That’s . . . good? Bad? No, good?”
“Bad,” corrected Master Lei serenely. “Remember, the ship is programmed to increase the level of response if the map’s protocols are violated. And the shuttles appear to be headed towards docking ports far removed from the bay that Serenity currently resides within.”
“Uh . . . that is bad.”
“Indeed. Our people will have to contend with a harsher response, down below.”
“And here we have no way to tell them. Peachy.”
“They will be on their own. And in addition to the other dangers they face, they will likely encounter the new force.”
“Lookin’ icky, I agree. Nothing much I can do about it.”
“Agreed. But we have another issue.”
“They . . . have cooties?”
The Master smiled. “No. They have drones. The ship launched over a dozen of them. They cover all of our potential orbital escape routes. Should we fully control Sun Tzu, they would be laughable. On the other hand, they could eat Serenity’s lunch.”
“Yeah, that’s a problem,” the pilot conceded.
“I bring this to your attention because it is part of the situation we may be able to assist with.”
“We are pilots, you and I. This is a spaceship thing. We must find a way to clear our back door of vermin should the soldiers fail in their task. To do otherwise would invite capture. Perhaps destruction.”
“So what do we do?”
“We think of a way out of the situation. Quickly. Perhaps one of the anti-ship batteries could be charged and used against both ship and drones? There is one near to you.”
“I . . . maybe Kaylee and I can go take a look. We could, possibly, run power from Serenity to juice it. If we get lucky.”
“We need to get lucky,” assured the Master. “Else that gorram frigate will be wearing our collective ass for a humpin’ hat.”
There was a pause. “You sure you’re a monk? That didn’t sound monkish.”
“Taoist monk. Not Buddhist. There is no prohibition against swearing. That would be an attempt to bind the Way.”
“All right. We’ll get on the gun, you keep your eye on that bully out there.”
“Will do. Heavenly Master out.”
Lei closed his eyes and listened. If he imagined just right, he thought he might have heard the vile string of profanity that Wash was likely screaming right now through the hundreds of bulkheads and decks that separated them.
35th TAU -46:50
“Major, I’ve been sent to inform you of developments back at base,” the young private said, positively quivering. He almost smiled at the lad’s enthusiasm. He had been among the last of the White Tigers inducted.
“Well, do so,” the Major sighed. “I don’t think I’ll get anything else out of these two.” He gestured to the two black-clad commandos, who he had spent the last thirty minutes beating. They were tough – he admired that, even if it did make his job more difficult. “They have given me nothing but their name, rank, and Imperial Service number. As if that was helpful.”
The private looked with disdain at the captives. “Sir! The Lieutenant reports that there has been some considerable progress made in the revivification process.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Really? In what way?”
“Sir, as of fifteen minutes ago twenty new hibernation capsules came on-line. Ten minutes after that, another twenty did.”
“Oh, that is good news. Very well, Private.”
“Sir, there is more!”
“Corporal Hin discovered something . . . he thinks it’s important. Something we found in the War God shrine on deck 18.”
“And what is it?”
The private told him.
“That is important. Perhaps even pivotal. Have it brought to headquarters, where we can examine it. If it is as reported . . .”
“Yes, sir! And the prisoners?”
“These men can stay here and reconsider their answers. Have the others brought to headquarters. I’m going to clean up and I will join you there.”
There was a bathroom down the hall, and it only took a little while to wash the blood off of his hands. In twenty minutes he was back in the shop, where a large container had been brought. The White Tigers were efficient.
Mostly, he amended. Only one of the three other prisoners was in evidence. The elderly clergyman sat in a steel chair, hands bound behind his back and a hoodwink over his head.
“Where are the others?” he asked, simply.
“Sir! They seem to have escaped, Sir!” the private answered. “I advised the Lieutenant and he had all remaining reserves committed to a search of the area, Sir!”
“Regrettable,” pronounced the Major. “But not disastrous. They were of little use. Perhaps this one can take their place.” He walked over to where the bound man sat and ripped off his hood. The old man blinked at the light – ironic, considering how dim the room was.
“About time,” he grunted.
“What is your name?” the Major asked briskly.
“I’m a Shepherd. Shepherd Book.”
“You are a Christian?”
“I have that honor,” the man agreed.
“Fairly,” the man admitted.
“So we shall see.” He pulled back his fist and slammed the man’s dark face hard under his left eye. The Shepherd grunted in pain and spit out blood. When he had recovered somewhat he raised his head and squinted up at the Major, his nostrils flaring. Then he slowly turned his head to the left, presenting the other side of his face.
The Major laughed. “Turning the other cheek?”
“It’s who I am,” the preacher said in a hoarse voice. “You do more damage to yourself than you do to me. My armor is the Lord.”
“I find those of your faith are often weak in their beliefs. Especially under duress.”
“Faith . . . must be tested,” agreed Book.
“Yours shall be broken,” advised the Major.
“To what purpose? You have yet to put a single question to me. Save asking my name.”
“What year is it?”
“2518. June. The thirteenth, I think.”
“That corresponds to what the others said. We were placed in hibernation in the autumn of 2396.”
“Glad I could oblige. What else do you need to know?”
“The big Anglic said that he was hired by a criminal Tong. Is that true?”
“Yes. The Yellow Sash. They had the coordinates of this ship.”
“Then why didn’t they come for us sooner?”
Book shrugged. “You’ll have to ask them that.”
“I shall. What are you doing here?”
Book managed a feeble grin. “Would you believe I’m on a spiritual journey of self-discovery?”
“You are a long way from a temple,” the Major said, his eyes narrowing.
“I was a passenger on a freighter. Captain diverted to take this charter. I’m in no hurry, thought I’d go along for the ride. Came aboard to see the sights.”
“A simple explanation. And not implausible. But there is something about you, Shepherd, something that says there is more to you than the eye reveals.”
“I’m just deep that way. Occupational hazard.”
“Oh, we shall find out who you are, under all of that depth. I was taught by the Master.”
“Shan Yu, I’ve gathered. I’m familiar with his work.”
“Really?” That surprised the Major. Especially considering the martial nature of his Master’s writings. “A Shepherd has studied the works of Shan Yu?”
“I like to keep up with what the other side is thinking. Opposition research, they call it.”
“So you do not find favor with the Master’s work?”
“Hardly. He was a minion of Satan. He brought pain and suffering and death to millions. His sadistic excesses are legendary. No doubt he has spent the last century in the fiery embrace of Perdition, suffering eternally for his crimes against God.”
“Or, maybe not,” countered the Major.
“Man like Shan Yu, ain’t no way he’s goin’ to Heaven. Or Nirvana, Paradise, or anywhere else pleasant in the afterlife. No, he’s burning, eternally burning. Of that I am certain.”
“Yet your sect teaches that forgiveness for any sin may be had with confession and the infinite grace of God, is that not so?”
“A minion of evil has studied the Gospel?”
The Major chuckled. “I like to keep up with what the other side is thinking. Of course I’ve studied the Gospel, Shepherd. About ten percent of my command are professed Christians. And I studied with the Jesuit Order for a year on T’ien, in my youth. Quite intellectually stimulating, if completely unfounded.”
“To answer your spiritual question, then, yes, Shan Yu could have been redeemed. If he confessed with his whole heart, was baptized and properly shriven. But somehow I can’t imagine he did – least, I never heard he did. God offers His grace to everyone. Not certain there shouldn’t be some exceptions, myself, your Master included. So your precious Master is burning in Hell, by my reckoning.”
“Oh, I disagree, Shepherd,” the Major said. “The Master is not burning in your silly Hell.” He turned his head and nodded to the private, who was fussing with the case just outside of Book’s vision. Then he put out a chair and turned the prisoner ninety degrees to face the object. Book’s eyes grew wide with recognition.
“Dear Holy God in Heaven!” he whispered harshly. “Jesus Christ!”
The object was a hibernation capsule. The lights were gaily flashing, indicating it was not only functional, but in the midst of the revivification cycle. In broad, red strokes the name of the occupant had been painted across the front.
ShanYu, Tyrant of Yuan.
Thursday, December 29, 2005 1:51 PM
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