BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

MAL4PREZ

The Fish Job: Chapter 15
Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Simon explains to the crew, River explains to the Captain.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 3368    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

Chapter 1.

Back to Chapter 14.

* * * * *

River followed Mal as he climbed the stairs from the common room, staying far behind him until the ladder to his bunk clanged shut. She huddled uncomfortably on the few steps that led from the dining room to the crew quarters, staring after him as if she could see through the bulkhead into his cabin. She didn’t turn around when the rest of the crew came up after her.

Zoe stood at the head of the table and waited for the everyone to get settled, then she turned to Jayne. “What exactly did you mean by askin’ Mal if he had the ‘crazies’?”

Jayne leaned over the table, looking around to make sure everyone was listening up. “When I found him in that cell, he was out of it. Talkin’ to himself. Then he pulled a gorram gun on me.”

“I saw it,” Kaylee said, “On the security vid. I figured he thought you was a guard or somethin’.”

“Nope. He knew it was me, and he wanted to shoot me.”

“Wanting to shoot you has never been a sign of insanity,” Wash said half-heartedly. His attempt at humor fell flat.

Jayne turned to Wash. “How about him tellin’ me Kaylee got her thumb cut off?” Kaylee sat up at this, and pulled her hands together against her stomach. Jayne didn’t notice; he looked around the table as he continued, “Or how ‘bout when he thought Serenity was blown up? Or when he started sayin’ he wouldn’t leave the base without Zoe’s baby?”

“Baby?” Wash looked to Zoe, who met his eye and shook her head slightly.

“Baby.” Jayne leaned back and crossed his arms. “And he was seein’ things on the way out.”

“Like the business with the Reavers on the transport,” Zoe added.

“Reavers?” Inara asked. Zoe didn’t explain further.

“It makes sense,” Simon said softly from where he leaned against the kitchen counter. Everyone looked at him.

“Just where do you find sense in that?” Book asked.

“River… saw a lot, and she’s been telling me about it. I believe I’ve worked out the details of what they did to him.

“Do tell,” Zoe said and sat down to hear the doctor out.

Simon took a moment to gather his thoughts. It wasn’t a good time to be overly technical, so he stated it as simply as he could. “We already knew that they were holding him in a dream state. I believe they actually controlled what was happening in his mind.”

“If they can do that, wouldn’t they know everythin’ about him, and us, already?” Zoe asked.

“No, it doesn’t work like that. The brain is a very complicated system. It’s not like a computer; you can’t copy a picture or an idea off of it, or upload and run a program. But neurologists have a good idea of the function of different parts of the brain. They know which areas handle logic or imagination, and which areas store memories and ideas.”

Simon paused; for once the crew silently waited for him to continue. “To put it simply, I believe the Alliance used electrodes on particular regions of the brain to trigger neural activity, to… stir up memories or emotions from his subconscious mind.

“A person’s emotional state can be monitored by scanning overall neural activity. That was one thing the holo-imager was used for, to see what resulted each time the electrodes were fired. The Alliance… doctors, I guess, although it’s generous to call them that… located the memories and ideas that hurt the most. Then they hit these harder.” Simon shook his head in disgust. “They opened the most negative aspects of his psyche.”

“Monsters,” River said without looking back at the table. “Scary monsters.”

Simon looked over to her sister. “Nightmares. Very realistic, very personal, nightmares. Fears, sources of grief, guilt, regret. Bad memories…” Simon’s voice trailed off.

“No one can devise a better torture for a man than he can for himself,” Book said softly.

There was a short silence, broken only by a sniffle from Kaylee. Inara gently took her hand, taking comfort as well as giving it.

“But how does that help them get information out of him?” Wash asked.

“They wake him up, question him. The worst things he can imagine have already happened to him, how much will he resist? And they can make it hard to separate being awake from dreaming.”

“An experienced interrogator could work out enough of the nightmare to make use of it,” Book added.

“But this doesn’t make sense,” Inara protested. “The Prefect said that the people who get questioned aren’t harmed.”

“They aren’t, really,” Simon replied. “The electrical charges used to stimulate neural activity are very small, no permanent damage is done.”

“Nano-wires.” River’s expressionless voice floated across the room as she recited: “Guided by high resolution three dimensional holo-images, nano-wires can be manipulated to pass between neural cells and deliver measured electronic discharges to specific areas of neural tissue.” She turned to the crew sitting around the table. “No changes. No scars. But they hurt.” River winced a little as she rubbed her forehead. “Takes a while for the bruises to go away.” She turned her back to them again, shifting on the stairs.

Simon paused while he watched his sister sadly, then he continued explaining. “After the questioning, I believe the subjects are held unconscious until the drugs flush out of their system. Most likely the Alliance has other drugs, or some technique to speed recovery, I’m not sure. But people are able to, essentially, sleep it off. They wake up with no memories of the process.”

Simon pushed away from the counter and paced in front of it, his tone becoming tight with anger. “No one remembers it happening to them and they aren’t physically hurt, so it’s not considered to be torture. It’s completely legal. They take people in broad daylight and do this to them. They… violate their minds.”

“But Mal seems to remember it,” Wash said. “He sure isn’t himself.”

“No, he’s not himself.” Simon stopped pacing. “We interfered with the process by getting him out. The dreams you remember best are the ones you’re having when you wake suddenly, right? Well, we woke him suddenly.” He pulled out a chair and sat down before he continued. “And he’s not out of it. Those drugs are still in his system.”

“That why he’s still seein’ stuff?” Kaylee asked.

“Yes. And I suspect they drugged him up more than they usually would before they questioned him. River pulled him out of that dream state before they wanted him out; they’re not used to that happening.”

“So they did question him?” Zoe asked. If Simon’s revelations were upsetting her, she didn’t show it.

“Yes. River says he didn’t tell them about her and I.”

“You sure ‘bout that?” Zoe pressed.

Again River turned away from watching the entrance to Mal’s bunk. “It was hard to make him see me because he was awake. But I saw him the whole time. He fought. Fought the questions.” She tilted her head to the side sadly, her eyes wandering to the floor. “He was losing. He was about to tell.”

“But he didn’t?” Zoe asked.

River focused on Zoe. “I got in. He saw me, and he knew.”

“Knew what?”

“They were lying to him.”

“So he knows it wasn’t real?”

“Sort of. He’s still confused.” River turned back to Mal’s bunk with a sigh.

“Will he be okay?” Kaylee asked Simon.

“Given time,” he replied. “Although I don’t think he’ll ever forget about it like other people have. I hope that it will fade away like any nightmare does, but I don’t really know. I’ve never seen this before.”

“But how ‘bout right now?” Kaylee asked. “Is he okay now?”

Simon shrugged. “It’s hard to say, he obviously doesn’t want to talk about it. I imagine he’s having some problems with what’s real and what isn’t.”

Kaylee’s eyes turned the same direction as River’s. “Should he be alone if’n he’s like that?”

Simon looked at his sister. “River’s keeping tabs on him. She’s the best one to do it. After all, she saw everything he went through.”

“What can we do to help?” Book asked.

“Not a whole lot, I’m afraid,” Simon answered. “Until his system is clean and he gets some sleep, maybe the best thing we can do is to leave him alone.”

“I don’t like him bein’ alone,” Kaylee said. “He ought’a know we’re here, that we’ll help…”

Zoe interrupted in a firm voice. “We can’t force it on him, Kaylee. If he wants company, he’ll come find us.”

“And when he does, we should try to make him feel comfortable,” Simon said with a glance at Jayne, who had been sitting silently for some time with his arms crossed in front of him and an angry glower on his face. “Don’t fight with him. Be nice, and don’t act… abnormal. We don’t want him thinking this isn’t real.”

“For now we leave him be,” Zoe said. “Meantime, we got’a meet up with the Prefect. He needs to know what the Alliance is doin’ to people.”

Jayne suddenly pushed his chair back and walked angrily toward the kitchen. He stood with his back to everyone at the table.

“What’s goin’ on Jayne?” Zoe asked.

“I’m just thinkin’ that maybe that Prefect’s got the wrong idea.”

“How’s that?”

Jayne turned around. “Maybe we ought’a be bringin’ those rebel folks a whole mess a’things that go boom so as they can deal with the Alliance right.”

“You sayin’ you wanna kill innocent people?”

“I’m sayin’ that you didn’t see how he was.” Jayne slapped at a plastic bowl on the counter and it spun onto the floor. “I don’t know ‘bout all this tech goushi the doc is spoutin’, but I do know that it ain’t right, man like Mal actin’ like that. They had him for one day – one day. I don’t give a good gorram what the law says. It just ain’t right.”

“The people who made those laws are far away from here, Jayne. Blowin’ up a bunch of grunts and doctors on Oeneus won’t help a thing.”

“I know, I just –”

“Put a lid on it,” she ordered harshly.

Jayne kicked at a chair in the sitting room, then he plopped down heavily into it.

It was Zoe’s turn to stand up and pace. “Okay doc,” she said. “When they first took the Captain, he was just one of, I’m guessing, a hundred people the Alliance thought might have some bit of info they wanted. Now you’re tellin’ me that he may be the only person who ever messed up their fancy brain-fryin’ plan. That don’t bode well.”

“I don’t imagine there are many who’ve disappeared from their cells either,” Book added. “They’ll be wanting to know how he managed that.”

“So the Alliance is after us, what’s new?” Zoe stopped pacing and stood sternly in front of the crew. “We take the risk and stick with the plan, meet with the Prefect. He needs to know. Jayne?”

“What?” he spat in a sulky tone.

“I meant what I said. While you’re on this ship you’ll keep yourself in line.” Jayne swore at her under his breath, but Zoe continued unfazed. “Fangxin, you’ll get your chance. You and I’ll be payin’ a visit to our friend Ricky, see if he’s got some idea ‘bout how we got into this mess.”

Jayne’s lip curled in a not-so-nice smile, and he looked over his shoulder to nod his approval.

Zoe turned back to Simon. “You got any more news to share?”

Simon shook his head. “No, that’s all.”

“Anyone else got anything to add to this little palaver?” Zoe asked. It was clear that it better be something important.

After a short silence, Wash slowly lifted a hand, “Uh, I have one thing…” Zoe gave him a terse nod, and he continued hesitantly. “It’s just… about the course we’re on. Can you have a look?” He tipped his head toward the bridge.

“Fine.” Before she left for the bridge, Zoe cast a look of warning around the room. “Keep it quiet people. Don’t bother him, and if he’s sleepin’, don’t be wakin’ him up.”

River didn’t stir when Zoe and Wash stepped over her; she had her head resting against the hatchway, and looked to be sleeping. Simon went to check on her.

“Hard to sleep,” she said softly when he touched her shoulder. “Storm’s still blowing too loud.”

* * *

Zoe walked to the front of the bridge. “What’s the problem?” she asked as she checked the course displayed on the console.

Wash stopped and leaned against the lockers behind the pilot’s chair. “You tell me,” he said.

She turned around and saw that he was looking at her, not at the ship’s controls. “Wash, I don’t have time for this,” she told him brusquely.

“It’s me, lamby-toes,” he said softly and he held his arms out. Zoe put her hands on her hips and turned away from him. Wash waited patiently; he knew it’d take her a bit to shed the Acting Captain armor. Finally she did. She turned back to him and stepped into his arms and they held each other quietly for a while.

“I can’t ask him what I should do,” Zoe said finally.

“You’re doing fine.” “Can’t even go talk to him. I don’t know if I’ll make it worse.” “I know.”

“He’s hidin’ in his bunk, Wash. On his own gorram ship.”

“It’s all right. He’ll be all right.”

She leaned back to look him in the eye. “You sure ‘bout that?”

“I…” Wash paused, then he smiled sadly. “He’s tough. He got through our stay at Camp Niska like it didn’t bother him at all.”

“Maybe it did bother him. Maybe he just didn’t talk about it ‘cause he was too busy checkin’ to see if everybody else was okay. Makin’ sure that Simon was all right with usin’ a gun, that you and I were good with each other. Maybe somebody should’a been askin’ how Mal felt about bein’ tortured.”

Wash ran his hands up to her shoulders. “Bao-bei, don’t start with the maybe’s. Don’t do that to yourself.”

Zoe shook her head. “There’s all kind’a of things he should’a been talkin’ about all these years. Things that are probably tearin’ him up right now. I should’a made him talk about it.”

“You really think you could have?”

“I could have tried.”

“Are you telling me that you never tried? Honey, you know him better than anyone, but there’s no way you’ll convince me that Mal would be an open book if only you had tried harder.” Zoe didn’t argue the point, so Wash continued. “You and Mal have been through a lot, more than I can even begin to understand. You’ll both get through this too.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Yes I do.” Wash kissed her gently and pulled her close again.

* * *

A glum silence hung over the crew all day. It was River who finally broke it.

Zoe and Wash were keeping to themselves on the bridge, and Kaylee was holed up in the engine room, tinkering quietly. Book and Jayne had worked off some energy with the weights, then returned to the dining room to pass the time with Inara and a deck of cards. Simon also sat at the table, but his attention was split between watching the card game and keeping an eye on River. The girl was still at her post on the steps.

It was late afternoon when River sat up suddenly, looking toward Mal’s bunk with a hand clasped over her mouth. “River?” Simon asked.

The card players looked toward her as she began to tip back, then she slid down the stairs with both hands wiping at her face in a panic. Book reached her first. “She’s not breathing!” he told Simon as he tried to hold her hands still. She fought against him until Jayne helped to hold her down. River’s eyes were frantic but she didn’t make a sound.

“Hold her head still!” Simon told Book and Jayne. He forced his sister’s mouth open and tilted her head back, then took a deep breath and forced air into her lungs until she gasped and began coughing. Book and Jayne let her go and she rolled onto her hands and knees. “It’s okay, mei-mei,” Simon murmured, his hand on her back.

As soon as River caught her breath enough to speak, she gave Book a horrified look. “Scary, scary preacher man,” she said in a shaky voice. Book backed away from her in confusion as she climbed to her feet.

“River -” Simon tried to hold her arm.

“Let go! Let go of me!” River pulled her arm free. “I have to make sure he got back!” She turned toward Mal’s bunk.

* * *

He noticed the smell first. It came to him out of the grayness of sleep, faint but growing steadily until it was overwhelming: smoke, mud, drying blood, and sickly sweet rot. After that the pained moans of dying men and women reached his ears.

Mal groaned when he realized where he was. He put his hand to his chest, but the necklace was gone. He remembered who had taken it, and opened his eyes. A tall form stood over him, a deeper shadow against the churning brown sky. The silver cross pendant and its broken chain dangled from the man’s hand.

“Didn’ wan’ it anyway,” Mal mumbled. “Useless gorram thing.”

The man held up the pendant; it glinted white against the fires burning on the side of the valley behind him. When he crouched beside Mal, dull orange light fell across his face. Book’s eyes were hard and his mouth was set in a straight line.

This can’t be how it ends, Mal thought. This can’t be where I end. Not in this place.

He lifted his hand to Book’s arm. “Shepherd, don’ leave me here,” he whispered.

Mal felt hard fingers digging into his jaw, forcing his mouth open, then the necklace dropped between his teeth. The chain trickled into his throat, making him gag. Mal tried to roll his head away as Book’s hands closed over his mouth and nose, cutting off his air, but the hands were too strong. The force of them pressed his head down into the bodies of the dead. Mal tried to push the arms away, but he was too weak. Black flowers bloomed in the corners of his vision, spreading until they covered the Shepherd’s face.

* * *

A thin stream of air somehow leaked into his lungs. He clawed weakly at the smothering hands on his face, but there were none. Finally, his throat opened and he drew in a full breath, then rolled to his side, coughing hoarsely. Mal’s vision slowly cleared and he realized that he was laying on his bed in his bunk. His hands groped against the bed and the shelves behind it, looking for something solid and familiar to reassure himself of where he was.

The entrance to his bunk clanged open; he wasn’t surpised to see bare feet on the ladder. Mal forced his hands to be still as River climbed halfway down the ladder and stopped in a crouch, leaning her head to the side to look down at him. Light from the hallway above caught in her hair, making an oval halo that floated beside the ladder.

“That was a bad one,” she said. She was slightly out of breath.

Mal tried to control his own breathing. “What the…” He didn’t even know what to ask.

“Just a dream. You fell asleep.”

“A dream,” he repeated, but he couldn’t quite believe that. The horror of it clung to him. He coughed a few more times to clear his throat, then pushed himself up to sitting, propped up against the wall behind his bed.

“It’s because of the drugs. And your brain is bruised,” she continued matter-of-factly. The cool reason in her voice was somehow soothing. He watched her as she put her legs through a rung of the ladder and hooked one foot through the next rung down. “Bruised by the electrodes. I know how it is.” She held on with one hand and leaned to the side again. “They used them at the Academy. To experiment. To plan surgeries.”

Mal wiped his face with a hand that shook a bit. “Surgeries?” he asked.

“Knives to open up my mind. Make it open like a window.” She turned her face toward the floor, watching the light that played in her hair.

“You tellin’ me it’s like this for you, all the time?”

She sighed “Sort of. My window opens to the outside. Your door is on the inside. It let the monsters out to play.”

Mal rubbed the back of his head: still sore. “River, how ‘bout you try n’ talk straight.”

“They made you have nightmares.”

“Right.” The dream was fading a little. Mal started to remember the things that had come before.

River was studying the parchment of calligraphy hanging on the wall across from his bed. “It wouldn’t be so bad if I hadn’t woken you up,” she said. “You wouldn’t remember.”

Mal thought about it. “But I’d have told ‘em about you and Simon.”

“Yes.”

Mal’s breathing was just about back to normal now. He felt his body relax and sighed with relief. He was no stranger to the aftereffects of an adrenaline rush. It was almost pleasant. “I thought I did tell ‘bout you.”

“I’m sorry I couldn’t stop it before then.”

“You were there the whole time, weren’t you?”

“I tried to help when I could.”

“You took the cuffs off.” He glanced at his wrists. There were no bruises, he’d never actually been cuffed.

“I’ve been in dreams before,” River told him. She was tipped nearly upside down, as she studied the things hanging on the back wall of his cabin. “I know how to do things.”

“You showed me how to wake up.”

“Yes, blew their minds.” She laughed suddenly and pulled herself upright. “No one’s supposed to be able to do that.”

“You were there when the Fed questioned me. That was real, right?”

“It was. It was mean of him, telling you he had Zoe and the baby.” She was looking past him at the shelves behind his bed.

Mal shifted uncomfortably; suddenly he felt naked. He didn’t like dealing with the things in his head, he especially didn’t like that this girl knew it all.

River stopped her scrutiny of his cabin to look at him. “I tried my best not to tell anyone what was happening. It was very personal. No one’s business but yours.”

Mal relaxed again and smiled. “River, sometimes you’re awful wise for a crazy teenager.”

“You’re just saying that because you’re crazy too.”

“Maybe.” Mal took a deep breath. “Maybe I am.”

Mal sat still for some time while River played quietly on her makeshift jungle gym. Then he spoke up again. “Thanks for gettin’ me out’a there. I’m glad you did.”

“No problem.” She was still watching him. He wished she’d go back to looking at his stuff; it was unnerving to have River staring at him. “I can stay here with you,” she said, “if you want to sleep.”

Mal was surprised by the offer. “Thanks… I’ll pass on that for now. You go on.”

“Are you hungry?”

“No.”

“Come up for dinner anyway. Everyone’s worried. They’d like to see you.”

“I’ll think about it.”

River looked at him doubtfully. “You sure you don’t want me to stay? I can be very quiet.”

“I’ll be fine, River.” He smiled to reassure her. “Anyway, if I’m not fine I expect you’ll know before I do.”

She hesitated still. “You will get better,” she told him.

Mal shooed her away. “Go help with the cookin’. I don’t want to be eatin’ nothin’ your brother cooks.” River was expressionless as she studied his smile, then she untangled herself from the ladder and climbed up out of his cabin.

* * *

Mal took his time getting ready to go up for dinner. He studied his reflection in his shaving mirror; with a clean shave and some scrubbing, he looked pretty much the same as he always had. Just a bit tired in the eyes. He shook his head and put the mirror away.

He pulled his boots on and checked that his shirt was tucked in straight. The only change in him, on the outside, was the gun and holster. Both were spares he’d dug out and dusted off. He’d lost his real gun, the gun he’d had since the war, and his coat. He’d had them when he was taken on the station.

Mal didn’t let himself ponder the changes to his inside. Time to put his best face on and move ahead. That’s the only way to get past bad times.

He found himself standing at the ladder, one foot up on the bottom rung. He didn’t want to go out there. Too many bad things and not enough good. Then he felt a wave of disgust with himself over his hesitance; he’d never been one to cower. His face set in determination and he climbed the ladder.

* * * * *

goushi: crap fangxin: don’t worry bao-bei: sweetheart mei-mei: little sister

* * * * *

On to Chapter 16.

COMMENTS

Tuesday, January 31, 2006 5:56 AM

HOMESPUN


Oh my. Better and better. It doesn't seem to matter what setting you are in, and which characters you are writing, they are all perfect. This is outstanding. Loved Mal & River, of course, but especially loved Wash with Zoe. And the crew for once waiting to hear what Simon had to say. Plus, you're addressing all the questions I had after the last chapter. Thanks so much for your hard work, and for sharing.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006 5:59 AM

ARTSHIPS


That was wonderful, all the way around. Even Wash holding his arms out for Zoe. It felt like you really nailed the characters.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006 8:20 AM

AGENTROUKA


I could read your River voice endlessly. It's calmingand hypnotic. As twisted as it is, I think thos whole experience is therapeutic for her, helping Mal in a way that only she can, through something she lived through herself. It's beautiful and poignant, since they have always been mirror images of each other.

The crew's reactions are spot on, as well. Jayne, all heartfelt yet thoughtless, Kaylee wanting to care for him in a way she would want to be cared for, Zoe trying so hard to be strong in a role that is not her own and then having that blessing of Wash, who is perhaps the most stable person aboard.

And oooh, Simon. Dead sexy Doctor voice, I could practically hear it. Wonderful job, letting him explain this without getting too exposition-y.


And latly, Mal. The man who never stops moving, hesitant. Break my wee little heart again.

I can't believe you have not once managed to disappoint me with this series. Usually there is always *something*, and here? Only awe and addiction.

Cannot wait until tomorrow!!!

Tuesday, January 31, 2006 10:11 AM

BURNANDBOIL


Another thrilling installment! This is great writing. :D

Tuesday, January 31, 2006 10:17 AM

AMDOBELL


Oh Wow, BRILLIANT! If I am ever in a tight spot like that I hope River is there to help me. Superb. I absolutely love how she understands his torment so much and the parallels with what happened to her at the academy. It is also good to see the reactions of the crew and very fine how Zoe was having a difficult time not having the Captain tell her what to do. Can't wait for the next part. Ali D :-)
You can't take the sky from me

Tuesday, January 31, 2006 11:58 AM

MAL4PREZ


Capercaillie - glad I could help, what a crappy day you've had! I hope you and your car are fine!!

re Inara, sit tight...

Thanks for the reviews everyone! I'm gonna be so bummed when it's all done and I can't be checking avidly for comments all day.

Like I needed another FF related addiction. Doh - too late! I already have some ideas for the next story.
Light stuff and dark stuff.

Wednesday, February 1, 2006 1:53 AM

BOOKADDICT


Poor Mal, I'm glad River's helping him.

I loved the crews' reactions to the Captain's return.

can't wait for the last 3 chapters.

Wednesday, February 1, 2006 6:03 AM

CAPERCAILLIE


Just reread this at a leisurely pace - very good on the details. I am most impressed with the last paragraph. In 5 sentences, you give us mentally-beat-up Mal morphing back into the Mal who rose from death in Niska's lair and who (in some future time) will "wrath" it back at the Operative. I really liked that ending!....and now like a hungry, screaming baby (or some misquote like that)...."When is the next chapter coming?") she says groveling pathetically at your feet...

Wednesday, July 12, 2006 8:24 AM

RIVERISMYGODDESS


I just want to re-iterate how happy I am for River's involvement in this entire storyline. I am kinda picky when it comes to reading thigns with her in them, but you have done superbly in my eyes. And I think I know what Zoe got from the base now.


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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

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