Chapter 16

Jansen Locherbie stormed down the lushly carpeted halls of the Parliament building, eyes flashing dangerously beneath his black hair. His mouth, framed by a neat goatee, curled down in a vicious scowl. He was a powerfully built character with muscles bulging beneath his well-tailored suit, more likely to be mistaken for the bodyguard of a planetary bureaucrat rather than one himself. Of average height and middle age, he prided himself on his physique, a testament to the years he spent laboring on the docks and in the scrapyards and warehouses of his homeworld. It served to constantly remind him of his roots, and of all the hard work and determination it took to earn his station. He maintained his body with the same tenacity he displayed in the chambers where he fought to voice the will of the people of Boros. Recently, though, he was just starting to notice a little softness around his middle, probably resulting from the more leisurely life now afforded to him as a Parliamentary Representative. He would have to remedy that soon. If he failed to remain vigilant in that aspect of his character, it would only make it easier to slip in other, more important respects.

Fading physique or not, though, no one dared stand in his way as he charged down the hallway. Clerks and staffers made a point not to meet his eyes and scurried aside quickly lest they for some reason be the targets of his anger. His determined march carried him down the seemingly endless corridor lined with an equally endless number of doors. Each one led to the office of a representative from the myriad of worlds in the Alliance. He was looking for one in particular and jerked to a stop when found it. Hon. Representative Soong Chu-yu - Sihnon, the placard on the wall displayed. He very nearly kicked the door down. A startled secretary bolted from his seat as he burst in and tried in vain to corral him, but Jansen bypassed him and made directly for the inner chamber. He threw open the door without knocking. Inside, the office was empty.

"Where is he?" he turned and rounded on the poor secretary. "Where is the slippery bastard?"

"I… I'm sorry, sir. Representative Chu-yu is off world on official business…"

"'Course he is," Locherbie did not let him finish. "You get him on a wave. I wanna talk with him."

"But, sir…"

"Now!" he hollered. His imposing presence urged the secretary back into the outer reception area. The man took his seat and began dialing in the representative's personal wave code while Locherbie loomed behind him. The wave connected shortly and Soong Chu-yu's olive-skinned face looked up from the screen.

"M hao yi si, xian sheng," the secretary tried to apologize. "I explained that you were gone but he insisted I wave you…"

"Soong, what the hell are you up to?" Locherbie shouldered the secretary's chair out of the way and glowered into the screen, hands braced on either side of the desk.

"Jansen. No hearings today?" Chu-yu greeted with barely concealed contempt.

"Why wasn't I notified that Serenity was captured?" Locherbie demanded, full of fury. Chu-yu regarded him with a carefully neutral expression, although his dark eyes flickered with distaste.

"That information is not ready for public release yet," Chu-yu explained. "We have not accounted for all of the fugitives who were on board, and we did not want to alert those still at large." Jansen was not going to be satisfied with that excuse, though, security concerns be damned. All throughout his investigation into the Miranda wave he had come up against resistance from Chu-yu and his political allies in one form or another. Every time he thought he was getting close to answers, it seemed there was a security concern over some crucial piece of evidence, or information he needed was classified beyond his level of clearance. He considered himself a reasonable man and was far from one to go looking for conspiracies, but the more it happened the more his instincts started to tell him maybe there was something bu shi wei er about the Miranda situation after all.

"You have most of crew in custody?" he asked.


"I want to speak to them."

"I'm afraid that's not possible," Chu-yu answered as if that was the end of the conversation.

"You can't keep them from me," he challenged.

"Actually, I can," Chu-yu snapped, a glint of ire in his eyes now. "Your hearings are a purely political investigation. Meanwhile, I am charged with ensuring the security of the government and its citizens. This is a criminal matter and that takes precedence. You'll be free to talk to them all you like after their trials are complete."

"My committee can bring criminal charges as well," Jansen countered.

"Yes, but first you need the evidence." The Sihnonese representative flashed an infuriating smile at him, like a parent humoring a child who did not understand. Locherbie's cheeks darkened with anger.

"You're blocking my investigation, Soong. I know it," he stabbed his finger at the man's face. "There's something you don't want me to find out, but rest assured I'll find it. I ain't backin' down." A hint of his Border accent crept into the last of his words. He twisted away from the screen and stomped from the chamber, slamming the door behind him.

"Lie huo pi!" Chu-yu spat under his breath, cancelling the wave and dropping his Cortex tablet face-down into his lap once Locherbie was gone. How had Jansen found out about Serenity so soon? No one besides those directly involved were supposed to know of it yet. If he ever discovered the leak, that person was getting a one-way ticket to Dyton. But with it out of the bag now, he would have to make some sort of public statement before Jansen's accusation of a cover-up was the top story on every newsfeed from here to the Rim. He would have preferred keeping it quiet longer, but it was not too terrible a setback, just one more annoyance on his already overfilled plate. Still, Chu-yu scowled at the thought of being forced to do anything by that odious man. He detested Locherbie and everyone like him. After the war, a small but significant cadre of Jansen's breed of politician was swept into office, mostly from former Independent-leaning Border worlds. Full of their own moral superiority, they were elected on promises to clean up the "corruption" in the Core. They prized naïve values like honesty and justice, refusing to compromise where their honor was involved. They had no clue how quickly that could derail a complex governmental structure like Parliament. Their self-righteousness had no place in a system where backroom dealings were just as crucial to getting things done as open floor debates. Locherbie would not even be a committee chair if it was not for the strategic importance of the shipyards around Boros' moon. Otherwise he would be just another backwater carpetbagger from an insignificant planet. Chu-yu sighed. Sometimes he wondered why the Unification War was even fought. Let the Border have their precious independence and all that went with it. Good riddance.

In his lap, his tablet beeped with an alert and Chu-yu flipped it over, half-fearing that it would be Locherbie again. To his relief, it was just a message from Kriegel asking about his ETA at Osiris so he could send a transport to bring him to their scheduled debriefing on the interrogation of Serenity's crew. He called his pilots on the intercom to verify his arrival time and replied to Kriegel. Then he leaned back in his chair, glancing out the window of his ship at the rapidly approaching outline of the planet. He imagined how much easier his life would be once this Serenity mess was resolved, one way or another. He looked forward to that. Maybe he would take a vacation, speed a few weeks at his estate on Bellerophon to cleanse his mind of this business. A faint smile crept onto his face. He liked that notion. He picked up his tablet again and sent a brief message to his secretary to inform him of his plans and to start rearranging his schedule. Then he closed his eyes and imagined lounging in a deck chair with nothing but an endless stream of martinis and the ocean breeze to occupy his time.

After fleeing from her house, River had not stopped running until she was well out of the residential neighborhoods and starting into the fringes of the city proper. At that point she forced her adrenaline-fueled muscles to slow her pace to a walk lest she draw too much attention to herself. Her eyes scanned the street, looking for a place to take shelter. Passing a restaurant, she ducked into the alley beside it and took refuge behind a dumpster. There she collected her fragmented thoughts. She was on her own now in the truest meaning of the phrase. Her father could not help her anymore, and neither could Simon or anyone else on Serenity. Knowing full well that something like this might happen she was glad she made sure they could reach someplace safe without her. If the captain had taken heed, they should have been halfway across the Verse by now. Leaving her behind would strain Mal's sense of loyalty to breaking, but even he would have to recognize how reckless it would be to attempt to come after her. As long as the government thought she was alive she would remain a fugitive, and that was how it was going to be in any prospective future she could foresee. She would always be a danger to everyone she cared about. In truth, there never had been much chance for her to make a life after the Academy. Maybe it was for the best, then, that this happened. Perhaps the government might forget about Serenity now in favor of focusing on her. It was bittersweet comfort to think that her friends might finally be free from the suffering she had brought on them. After all the crew had given up for her, she had no right to ask them to endure any more. A sob broke from her lips and tears threatened to follow it as she started to come to terms with the notion that she would very likely never see any of them again, but she choked back the sorrow. Mourning her fate was not something she could indulge in.

Instead, what she needed to focus on was avoiding the Alliance. If they captured her, she would unquestionably be returned to the Academy for them to finish what they started. Only in her nightmares could she conceive of what kinds of dastardly acts they might force her to perform if she was brought back. They may even send her against Serenity if they still had a mind to track the rest of the crew down. That was unconscionable, and she was determined not to let them use her like that. Getting off world was her best chance at freedom, but the probability of successfully accomplishing an escape now was akin to nil. Osiris was not like Spider, or even Persephone. The security net was just too tightly layered for her to slip by. That meant she was going to have to make her way on the surface. But with every security feed, Fed regular, and Lawforce officer on the beat keeping alert for her now, her odds of remaining free had slimmed dramatically. That left one option: the Blackout zones. No feeds, no Cortex coverage, and no protection. Even with all of her talents and skills, the likelihood of getting killed or worse down there was still significant. But if she had another choice, she could not see it.

She had to wait for darkness and the streets to clear somewhat before she even attempted to move about again, so she staked her place in the alley, watching and waiting. Not another soul traversed the narrow street except for the lone restaurant employee who made an appearance to fling the day's trash into the dumpster. It was dark by then, and River had no trouble finding some shadows in which to hide briefly until he was gone. When the coast was clear, she rifled through the fresh bag, scrounging out a few not too sullied scraps of food which she choked down to ease her gnawing hunger. She also combed around the one or two other refuse bins, hoping to find some more practical attire, but she was out of luck on that front. She sorely missed her sweater and cargo pants now, but there was nothing for it. It was time to move, anyway, so she crept out of the darkened lane and began her sojourn towards the seedier parts of the city.

The few persons she came across along the way were all going in the other direction and quite hastily at that. She sensed from their minds that even if they had seen her before she hid from them, they most likely would have avoided her in any case. However, when she crossed that invisible line into the most dangerous of Capital City's neighborhoods, she immediately noticed the change. Although she could not see most of them, there were more people about, more minds brushing against hers, and these were not worried citizens hurrying to get home before dark. These were people who called this place home in one fashion or another. Some were predators inhabiting the shadows, or those with enough shame left to still try to hide their sins. Others wandered aimlessly in and out of the darkness, usually out of their minds to one degree or another thanks to disease, drugs, or both. Some flaunted their visibility, moving with purpose and making sure others saw their strength and capabilities lest they be judged weak and preyed up. All in all, though, it was not as terrible as she had feared. She sensed nothing that was much worse than any of the other worlds she had been to with Serenity, and it was far less terrible than facing a horde of Reavers.

She chose to move in bursts, keeping to the darker recesses when she knew they were empty, and hazarding the more visible areas when she sensed danger lurking where her physical senses could not penetrate. Unfortunately, when she had to move out in the open she could not avoid attracting unwanted attention, especially in her delicate-looking dress. After only a few moments on the street she sensed the eager, lurid thoughts of an unwelcome follower. Her tail closed with her fairly quickly, not wanting to let such a pristine catch to slip away to someone else.

"Hey there, little girl. What'cha doin' down here?" the man simpered at her from behind. She pretended to ignore him. "What? You don't wanna talk to me?" he kept on. "You're lookin' mighty fine tonight. Goin' somewhere special?" She increased her pace noticeably to get some space between him. "Slow down there, baby," the man started to reach out for her, and she let Ariel's instincts take over. He only got close enough for her hair to brush his fingertips as she whirled around and met him with the muzzle of her gun.

"Don't touch me," she said in a measured, even tone to his astonished face.

"What the hell is this?" he blurted. With no mind to answer him, River took a quick visual and mental inventory of her "suitor" and considered she might be able to make use of him. She moved cautiously around until she was behind him.

"Walk," she ordered, nudging him with her gun barrel in the direction of a garbage-strewn passageway. She stopped him when they reached the near total blackness of the alcove.

"Look, let's take it easy here, huh? Whatever it is you want, I can get it for you," the man attempted to bargain with her out of self-preservation. His fear coursed through her, but so did his confidence that he could weasel his way out of this predicament. "Drugs, booze, sex," he offered. "I got contacts. I got…" She let her gun make him a counteroffer, driving the butt of the grip into the back of his head. He collapsed in an unconscious heap. Sorting quickly through the contents of his pockets, River took what she had been after- some cash and a portable Cortex unit. The device would be useless in and of itself once she reached the Blackout zones, but it could still have value in trade. She considered taking his pants, too, but decided that trousers three sizes too large would be more of a hindrance than the notice her dress might garner. She did elect to take his jacket, though. The large synthetic overcoat was peace of mind against the rather cool night air, despite the fact that it smelled rather disgusting. Gathering her pilfered articles, she left the man lying there. Given his dishonorable intentions, she felt justified leaving him to the whims of the concrete jungle. At best he would wake up with only a headache and the loss of a few possessions, which was more than he deserved.

However, what surprised her when she dwelt on it was that she had not just outright killed him as she might have only a few days ago. She had definitely used Ariel's prowess to defend herself against him, but she had not transformed into her alter. The colors had not changed, nor had she slipped into that state of filtered awareness that came on when Ariel took over. In fact, when she recalled it, she had not become Ariel even when she had shot her way out of her father's house. It was clear that since she had arrived on Osiris, Ariel's presence had been gradually diminishing, but now it gave her pause to wonder just what that meant. While at first it was simply a relief to not have that violent consciousness so ever-present in her head, it was not like Ariel was completely gone, either. The instincts, the training, and the mindset were all still there, but the sense of them belonging to someone else had virtually disappeared. There was barely a distinction anymore. Did that mean she had become Ariel, then? Or had Ariel become her? Who am I? She had no idea how to answer that question.

Setting aside that freshly disturbing insight, she turned her focus back to survival and finding shelter. She moved farther into the unsavory quadrants of the city until she came across a derelict industrial building. The impressions she received from the few others already sheltering inside was that they were either not inclined or incapable of harming her, so she picked it as her resting place for the night. Not taking any chances, however, she climbed as high as she could, choosing a rickety, rusty catwalk to serve as her bed. In a remote way it reminded her of the catwalk on Serenity where she had lain on occasion in times past. Perhaps that familiarity might help her make the most of what little respite she could find tonight. Wrapping the stolen jacket around her and doing her best to disregard the smell, she laid her head on the grating and closed her eyes.

It was well past late morning when River snapped her head up from the catwalk several hours later, startled awake by nightmares she could neither comprehend nor recollect. She moved sluggishly at first, her tongue pasty and dry. A fine layer of grit had collected on her teeth overnight and she coughed and spat several times, although she was unsuccessful in ridding the grime from her mouth completely. Her head ached something awful as well. She could feel indentations where her steel mattress had dug into the sides of her face, arm, and leg. Although the day was mild yet, the building was growing oppressively hot this near the ceiling, so she proceeded to descend to a lower elevation. She dragged herself down to an abandoned upper level office and spread the jacket over the glass and debris-strewn floor so she could sit down. She had already decided her goal for today would be to find some food and definitely water, but it would be safer to move in darkness. Even in the Blackout zones she was not immune from being recognized and reported by some lowlife greedy enough for the substantial reward to risk tipping the Feds. While her throbbing body recuperated from its unaccustomed slumbering position, it occurred to her that she was not even sure if she had reached the Blackout zones yet. There was no hard and fast boundary, no signpost to demarcate where they began, so the most reliable indicator was the strength of the Cortex signal. Digging into the jacket pocket, she withdrew the Cortex unit she had taken off the man last night and turned it on. The device took a good long while to connect, but it was ultimately able to access the network. That meant she was close, but still not out of the reach of security feeds and other remote means the Alliance might have for tracking her.

While she still had a signal, though, she conceived it might be prudent to check on the status of the hunt for her. She had not been able to detect anyone following her after she escaped her parents' house, but it would be presumptuous not to avail herself of all the information she had access to. After all, the Alliance had somehow figured out she was here, even though her father had not notified them. Maybe Dr. Childs had suspected something, or perhaps she had left something behind in her ship. She did not know, and she needed to find out. Navigating to the newsfeed menus, she perused the headlines for clues on what the Alliance's current tactic was. She did not expect to find anything so overt as a report on her encounter with the Task Force yesterday. They would want to keep that quiet. But fully-armed soldiers involved in a shootout in a well-to-do neighborhood was not something that could be ignored, so they had probably devised some cover story to push on the feeds that might provide her with a little insight into their machinations. However, what she found dominating the reports instead hit her like a bullet to the heart. She pulled up the first live broadcast available and hunched over the small screen, her eyes locked on it in devastated horror. Captain Malcolm Reynolds and his crew, accused of orchestrating the Miranda wave and the ambush that led to the deaths of hundreds of Alliance soldiers, were in custody after being interdicted while trying to enter Osiris space, the anchor was saying.

No… She changed to another feed and found the same story being repeated. It was on the next one, too, and the next one. No, no, no! She desperately switched between feeds, unable to believe what she was seeing and hearing was true, but every single one was the same. Serenity had been captured. A slithering sickness knotted up her stomach, making her want to turn away and throw up, but she kept watching, desperate for more information. There was not much revealed on the details of the capture, just a generic press release, but experts and pundits were already speculating on everything from why they had been attempting to reach Osiris, to whether there would be a public trial or a closed military tribunal. The reports also discussed the continuing effort to locate her, and now she understood how the Alliance had known to come for her at her parents' house, but all of that was inconsequential now. Her friends were in the hands of the Alliance, and it was her fault.

Guilt wracked her and she slammed her fists against her knees in frustration.

How could you let this happen? she railed at herself. You were supposed to protect them! Instead, she had led them right into the maw of the monster. She should never have left. Or, maybe she should have left sooner. She should have let Jubal Early take her, or better yet just shuffled herself off and saved everyone the trouble. Then none of this would have happened. But she had been too selfish, too afraid, and too weak to do that, and now everyone she cared about was going to pay for her weakness. She had thought she was living in a nightmare before Miranda, but this was the real thing. She was sure the Alliance would show no mercy. They were out for blood, and that blood would be on her hands. She was the cause of all of this, just as surely as she had been the cause of the deaths of Shepherd Book and Wash and Mr. Universe, and all of those on Haven. Just as surely as she had pulled the trigger on Miles Sheenaman, or killed that doctor at the Academy.

No more! she cried silently, shaking the memories from her head. She had to end it. But how? It had taken and army of Reavers and the appalling revelations of what happened on Miranda to convince the Operative to abandon his mission, and still the Alliance had not given in. How could she possibly induce them to let Serenity go and stop pursuing her now?

Give them what they want, the solution hit her almost immediately, and with resounding clarity. The notion was so completely and utterly revolting, though, that part of her instantly recoiled from it. However, the core of what had once been Ariel did not shrink away. Whether or not by her own agency, she was stained with enough blood that she had no standing to pretend she was any better than they were, it asserted. This was what it had come to, and this was what had to be done. The Alliance never stopped coming, no matter how far she ran from them. And now that they had her in a corner with her friends' lives hanging in the balance, it was foolish to hope to find another way to stop them. They only understood one thing, and she would give it to them. She would push back. But it was not going to be easy. She would need some time to plan, meaning the crew would be left to bear whatever punishments the government decided to inflict on them in the meantime. The thought of her friends suffering more for her sake only stoked her determination. She had to rescue them, and then she would stop this once and for all. A steely coil of resolve unwound inside her and she started mining the vastness of the Cortex for the precious bits of information she needed to make the plan work. They didn't leave me a choice, she thought acridly. They never did.

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