Chu-yu paced the floor of the Fugitive Task Force's headquarters with his hands clenched behind his back. The room had hummed with incessant activity all through last night and into today, but until they had word that River Tam had been found, there was going to be no rest for anyone, least of all for himself. Eileen Kriegel's murder not only underscored the threat that River posed, but it had also struck real and personal fear into the hearts of the analysts and investigators engaged in the hunt for her. If she could evade detection to kidnap and then murder the wife of an Alliance major general, what could she do to their loved ones if she got the notion to try? Chu-yu knew from the intense yet subdued way they all went about their work that such a fear was in the back of all of their minds. It was also on his mind. And unlike the Task Force, who had been kept in the dark about the Academy and River's origins, he knew exactly what she was capable of. Knowledge was supposed to dispel fear, but in this case it was cold comfort. And even though he knew that it was unlikely that even she could get past his security detail to reach him, he could not completely unwind the thread of worry that knotted in his stomach. He hated feeling afraid, so he dealt with it the only way he knew how- he got angry. He vowed that after River was captured, measures were going to be taken to ensure that something like this never happened again. He would see to it personally.
Could River actually be captured again, though, was the other question that haunted his thoughts. He had learned from Kriegel and Dr. Qin that the failsafes were no longer effective, which was an unexpected and unwelcome development. Without that advantage, the need to employ more aggressive options became a real possibility. Already Knowlton, whom he had placed in charge of this su zhou shi now, had made some urgings in that direction. Of course, if it had been as simple as that, he would have made the decision long ago to eliminate her. It was not that simple, though. Despite the risks and his growing personal dislike for the girl, he could not forget that she was integral to the future of security for the Alliance. Although there were other subjects, she had been the Academy's most promising student by far, and the realization of Project Oracle in large part depended upon recovering her. Granted, she would most likely never be deployable again no matter what condition she returned in, but she could still provide substantial insight into the development of the next generation of project participants. That alone made her too valuable an asset to consider eliminating unless there was absolutely no other alternative. However, if things continued on like this, the collateral damage was going to be difficult for even his influence to contain. He had so far kept the circumstances of Eileen Kriegel's disappearance from coming out, but until a plausible story could be arranged, all it took was one overly curious reporter to blow the lid off everything. Shaking his head, he lamented that he was also going to have to cancel his planned celebratory holiday on Bellerophon. He knew that was the minutest thing in all of this that should have upset him, but perhaps because it was of the least importance, he found it particularly irksome.
"Representative, I have a wave from Major General Kriegel, sir. He says it's urgent," a communications tech called out to him. Chu-yu turned from his reflections and glanced at the man with a frown. That was unexpected. He had relieved Kriegel of all responsibilities and sent him home to grieve with his family, accompanied by a small security detail as a precaution. He had not expected to hear from him for a few days at least, and, truthfully, he would not have been surprised if he never spoke to the man again. Although it was not yet official, it was all but certain that Kriegel's tenure at the Academy was at an end. It rankled Chu-yu to lose a person of such caliber and experience, but the death of his wife was just too much of an emotional shock to risk allowing the major general to keep running the facility that would eventually house River Tam again. Kriegel might accept that decision, but on the other hand, he was also a true patriot and not one to shirk his duties. It was completely possible that he was waving now to plead his case to be put back in command. Not looking forward to dealing with either situation, Chu-yu sighed with weary frustration and sat down at his workstation.
"Very well. Put him through," he told the tech.
The screen before him flickered to life and Kriegel's face appeared. He looked even worse than before, his skin pale and drawn into lines of real pain.
"What can I do for you, Major General?" Chu-yu asked, trying to sound solicitous.
"Soong, we have a problem," Kriegel grunted roughly.
"What kind of prob…" Chu-yu started to ask, but his words died in his throat when the screen image blurred and was replaced with the stark face of River Tam. He stared at her in silent disbelief, his mouth half open.
"Representative Chu-yu," she pronounced his name with frigid precision. "I want to speak to you about the release of the crew of Serenity. As you can see, I have Major General Kriegel. I also have his son." The image blurred again, and Chu-yu saw the frightened face of a husky young teenager appear briefly onscreen before returning to River's visage. "In two minutes I am going to wave you on the code for major general's office at the Fugitive Task Force. I would advise you to accept that wave, or the major general and his son will suffer the consequences. Dong ma?" Chu-yu could not even formulate a response to her demand. "Two minutes begins now," she stated, and his screen went blank.
Staggered, Chu-yu's expression remained stuck as he reached to collect his fragmented thoughts. He could not countenance that this was happening. How had she gotten past the soldiers he had sent to guard Kriegel? It was impossible. Yet, as she had just clearly demonstrated, the major general and his son were in her clutches. And now she was using their lives to blackmail him into releasing Serenity. His reaction to such a brutish threat was automatic and instinctual. He got furious. He was not one to suffer anyone manipulating him into doing anything. He had chafed enough when the leak of Serenity's capture to Locherbie had pressured him to issue a press release about it. But at least Jansen was an Alliance politician, someone with a fair amount of sway in his own right. River was just a girl, a single, crazy teenage girl. She could not possibly have that much control over him. And although he was not so callous as to completely disregard the safety of Kriegel and his son, he was damned if he was going to let her coerce him into doing what she wanted, regardless of whose lives she threatened. Breaking from his incensed ruminations, he shot a look at the time on his com screen. He had already lost nearly a minute. Limbs trembling with the adrenaline and anger pumping through his system, he leaped up from his workstation.
"Zhu zui!" he shouted to the room at large. The viciousness of his tone commanded the immediate attention of the entire task force. Everyone stopped what they were doing and turned to him in surprise. "I have just been personally contacted by River Tam. She has informed me that she has Major General Kriegel and his son as hostages," he addressed the group. Whispers of shocked rippled through the Task Force staff as he relayed that detail. "She will be waving back in approximately…" Chu-yu glanced at the clock again, "… twenty-five seconds on the major general's office code. I will be taking the wave. The moment it connects, I want a trace running, I want us recording, and I want you using every tool you have to track down this girl! As soon as her location is established, Brigadier General Knowlton is to be notified immediately. Is that understood?" In response, the technicians around him broke from their stunned inactivity and rushed to prepare their equipment. Assuming he had sufficiently convinced them of the gravity of the situation, Chu-yu wasted no time waiting for them. He hurried past the frantic techs and towards Kriegel's office in the back of the room. The workstation at the desk was already flashing an incoming wave alert when he reached it, and he slapped the screen to accept while throwing himself into the chair.
"Miss Tam," he greeted River with an arctic chill when she appeared.
"Representative," she returned the favor equally.
"You would like to talk about Serenity? I am all ears," his voice oozed false cordiality.
"I want the crew of Serenity released, free and clear, with all charges dropped," iterated River. "In exchange for that, I will let Major General Kriegel and his son go. Also," she paused slightly, "I will turn myself in without incident." Chu-yu absorbed that for a moment before replying.
"Well, Miss Tam, that's very reasonable of you for a change. I am willing to accept your surrender, but releasing the crew of Serenity is not up for discussion. You know why they cannot be set free," he countered.
"I think the major general and his son would be grateful if you would reconsider," River responded.
"Threatening their lives will not win you or your friends any sympathy," Chu-yu replied with sternness. "In fact, you may hurt the crew by associating them with your violent actions. However, if you let your hostages go and turn yourself in, I may be able to advocate on Serenity's behalf, perhaps reduce the sentences for their crimes somewhat." He masked his tension with the hard edge of his words, but it was a delicate balance trying to remain firm in refusing to acknowledge her demand while still appearing open to other options. She had already proven her determination and willingness to follow through on her threats, and if she truly believed he would not budge, she would almost certainly take it out on Kriegel.
"Their only crime was trying to help me," River replied. "You, on the other hand, are responsible for much worse than what they've done. You, and the major general, and everyone else involved. Would you like me to tell you what I know about Miranda? Or perhaps we should discuss the Academy, instead?" River's swift and unexpected turn of the subject caused Chu-yu's blood to run cold. His posture went stock still and his gaze froze on her face in the screen. Although her expression remained detached and neutral, her eyes gleamed with intensity. He saw now, only too late, what her intent was in making this wave. She meant to blackmail him not just with Kriegel and his son, but with everything she knew. His mind raced furiously, tracing out the threads of her plan. She must have known the Task Force would be recording her. Either Kriegel had told her, or she had guessed at it herself, but one way or the other all it took was a few simple words to turn that detail elegantly to her advantage. Now she was on record as having knowledge of Miranda and the Academy, and she knew he could not stop recording without inducing suspicion. She had put him in in a position where if he continued to resist her demands, she was poised to not only devastate his career, but to threaten the entire security apparatus of the Alliance. His only way out was to refuse to negotiate and simply terminate the wave, but then Kriegel and his son would certainly be killed. Although he was not beyond sacrificing them to protect the greater stability of the Alliance, he had to wonder now, how many more would she kill before they caught her? Would he be next? Even if she did not come for him, if her killing spree continued, he would face terrible criticism in Parliament for his handling of the matter. That would bring more investigations and scrutiny than he was already facing, and as much influence as he had, he could not contain it all. Somehow something would get out, and then everything he had worked for would be lost. It was too much to risk. Chu-yu's thoughts spun in the quagmire, desperately trying to conjure some other way to defuse or counter her menace, but he was caught in his own web of manipulation. Like a hunter, she had flushed him into the trap, and now she was closing it around him. Even though she was only a face on his screen, she might as well have been in the room holding a gun to his head.
But why didn't she just do it? he wondered suddenly. For that matter, if that was her game, why had she not gone to the media instead and revealed everything? Regardless of whether or not they believed her, they would be drooling over a story like that. His eyes narrowed shrewdly as he finally figured out her weakness. Serenity. That was the reason she held back. She was still trying to protect her friends. If she exposed him, she knew he would try to strike back at her through the only avenue he had, and he would show no restraint. So she had tied her fate to his. If he did not agree to release Serenity, both of them stood to lose everything. It was mutually assured destruction.
Chu-yu did not recognize the sensation churning in his gut as he slumped back in his chair, but it was helplessness. It had been so long since he had experienced that feeling that he had forgotten what it was like. He realized with flabbergasted irony that all of the power and influence he had accumulated over his years meant nothing in this situation. He had no other option. Freeing Serenity was by far the least costly course of action. At least with that he could still control some of the fallout. Any other choice would be like signing his own termination order.
Chu-yu glared at her with unveiled spite and disgust, but it was a futile gesture.
"Will Serenity be freed?" River asked him patiently.
"Yes," his hissing answer was almost spat at the screen.
"I want to see them first. Then we have to discuss terms." The representative's jaw dropped to the floor at her response. His dark face darkened even more as crimson blotches dotted his cheeks.
"Terms? Terms!" he veritably shrieked. "You murdered an innocent woman in cold blood! You've kidnapped and threatened a military officer and his family to extort your demands from the government! You've committed acts of terrorism on the highest level! There are no terms for your surrender! You will turn yourself in and as a consideration we will set Serenity free. Otherwise I will use every resource available to bring you down, and there will be no mercy for your fellow traitors!" Flecks of foamy spittle flew from Chu-yu's mouth as he ranted, appalled by her preposterous audacity. However, his fury was wasted on her. River continued to regard him without emotion, waiting for him to finish.
"I want their safety and freedom guaranteed," she explained as if he had never spoken. "If you are not willing to agree to that, then this discussion is pointless."
"Soong, please," Kriegel spoke up unexpectedly from the background. "It's not worth it. Just let them go." The desperate plea was so uncharacteristic of the man Chu-yu knew that it rapidly deflated his ire. Besides, it was too late for that kind of pride, he realized. He had lost this battle as soon as he had taken the wave. A bitter, defeated sigh issued from his chest. Reining in his ego, he closed his eyes and forced out the words he knew he had to say.
"Very well. I will arrange for the release Serenity's crew. Quietly," he emphasized, "if Miss Tam will agree to surrender herself."
"I still want to speak to them," River reminded him.
"Of course. But if it please you, may I beg for some time to arrange it?" Chu-yu snapped back, his tone laden with acrimony.
"You have half an hour," River informed him. "I will wave again in that time. If I am not able to speak to them then, I will assume you have reneged on you end of the bargain and Major General Kriegel and his son will suffer for it. And so will you," she promised. Then she vanished from the screen as the wave disconnected. Chu-yu remained slouched in his seat, fuming. How had he been brought to this? It was a far cry from what he had expected when this all began. But what else could he do? The alternative outcome was many times worse, and it was absolutely inconceivable to allow that to happen. Feeling embittered and hollow, he rose and left the office, setting about to do the most distasteful thing he could possibly imagine.
Lying on his back on the spartan cot, Mal felt the muted thud of the reinforced security door leading to the cell block shudder through the walls of his cell. It had become a routine signal over the past several days since his capture and incarceration. It was a something he could very literally set his watch by, that was, if he had a watch. Since he did not, though, it was the next best thing to an actual timepiece. It announced the arrival of meals and the changing of the guard, and by keeping track of it he had some general idea of the time of day and how many days had passed since he had entered his windowless prison. That was why when he heard it this time he was instantly alert. The slop that passed for his dinner had been shoved through the feeding slot of his cell barely a half hour ago, and the next shift change was not due for another few hours after that, so this was not part of the regularly scheduled regime. He sat up on his cot, cocking his head to listen, but although he could feel the vibration of something as massive as the security door through the soundproofed walls, they still prevented him from hearing what, if anything, was going on outside. It was with a start, then, that he jerked to his feet when the lock on his cell unexpectedly disengaged. The door slid automatically into its pocket in the wall, and three armed soldiers peered in at him from beyond it.
"Prisoner, place your hands behind your back. Turn around and step slowly out of your cell," one ordered him without preamble.
"Why? Where're we goin'?" Mal asked, refusing to move both out of wariness and a basic desire just to spite them. He did not get an answer, but instead the soldiers strode in and grabbed him. "Hey! Let go of me!" he struggled in protest, but they made quick work of turning him about and pinning him against the wall with his arms behind his back. He felt the bite of plastic into his skin as he heard the zip tie being fastened around his wrists. Then he was bodily hauled out of his cell and into the main corridor.
"Sir!" a familiar voice rang out against the concrete walls of the prison hall.
"Zoe!" he swiveled his head around, still struggling with the guards as he tried to find his first mate. "Zoe? You all right?"
"I'm fine, sir," Zoe answered gruffly. Craning his head awkwardly over his left shoulder, Mal spied three more soldiers similarly wresting her from her confines as well.
"Cap'n!" Kaylee cried out to him all of a sudden.
"Kaylee!" Mal yelled for her.
"Kaylee!" Simon shouted at almost the same time.
"Simon!" Kaylee's voice nearly broke with obvious relief as she called the doctor's name.
"Rrgh! Get your ruttin' hands off 'a me!" Jayne cursed, none too pleased as yet another group of soldiers manhandled him from his cell, too. Whipping his head around, Mal saw each of his crew in various states of restraint being removed from their cells. It was an enormous relief to lay eyes on all of them again, but at the same time it brought considerable concerns to his mind. Something was happening if they were all being moved at the same time, and that something was most likely not of the pleasant variety. And, he realized with a sinking stomach, they were not all here.
"Where's Inara?" he called out in general, but he got no response other than a shove in the back. He stumbled and scowled over his shoulder, muttering a few choice names for the guard and his mother under his breath, but he had little attention to spare on his brutish treatment. He had to find out where Inara was. It was clear she was not here with them, and that spiked his fear. His heart leaped into his throat in an instant of automatic panic, but he choked it down. She was alive. She had to be. He could not allow his thoughts any other outlet. But before he could dwell much further on her condition or whereabouts, a soldier with a rank insignia of lieutenant strode up to them.
"You are all going to be escorted to a transport for transfer," the woman spoke harshly and with a glare for each one of them. "Step out of line or resist in any way and you will be corrected," she nodded to the cadre of soldiers surrounding them and brandishing their sonic rifles. "Dong ma?" No one answered her, and she swept them all with another menacing glare before ordering her men to move them out. Corralled into a small cluster and flanked on all sides, they were forced down the main hall.
"Mal, what the hell is goin' on here?" Jayne hissed to him.
"Not rightly sure," Mal shook his head, "but I don't fancy they're takin' us out for a walk." He turned his attention to the lieutenant. "Hey! Where're you takin' us? And where's Inara?" he hollered to the back of the woman's head as their escort halted them in front of the security door.
"I'm not privy to that information," the officer responded, not even bothering to turn around. "And even if I was, I wouldn't be authorized to tell you," she went on while waiting for the door to trundle open. "You'll find out soon enough. Now shut up and move!" Amidst a flurry of protests, each one of them was given an encouraging prod and they were marched through the door and on through the maze of prison corridors.
Moments later, an even more bewildered Mal found him and his crew ensconced not-so-comfortably in some sort of shuttle. They had barely enough time to be unceremoniously shown their seats before the ship's engines screamed to life and blasted them and their Alliance entourage off to who knew where. Mal tried again to get some answers about their where they were going, but his questions only elicited more "corrections" from the taciturn lieutenant's lackeys, as did any form of talking altogether. So with their eyes shifting back and forth between each other as their only form of communication, they endured their mysterious journey in tense, uncomfortable silence. It was a small piece of mercy that the flight did not take long, but when the ship slowly maneuvered and docked with their destination, a resurgence of helpless worry enveloped Mal. He was still concerned about Inara, and now they were about to disembark for some unknown fate that, in all honesty, he reckoned they would never return from.
With the shuttle's engines winding down in the background, the soldiers urged them to their feet and lined them up before the airlock. Taking the head of the line, Mal briefly shared a glance with Zoe. Her face was as stoic as ever, but even that could not hide the glint of fear that shone through her eyes. She faced it squarely, though, taking a deep breath and raising her chin proudly, shoulders back and spine straight in the stance of a defiant warrior. He also caught a glimpse of Jayne whose expression was a mix of curiosity and worry that gave the impression that he could not decide on which was more appropriate in this situation. He could see neither Kaylee nor Simon's face as both of their heads were down. At the rear of the line, the doctor's shoulders slumped abjectly. With the stubble just starting to return to his shaven head, he looked all the more like a prisoner, broken and despondent. Ahead of him, Kaylee waited without a sound, although Mal thought he saw her body shudder with what might have been a suppressed sob.
The hiss of the airlock jerked his attention to the fore, and Mal prepared himself to face what lay ahead with as much dignity as he could muster. He was captain, and whatever was to come, he would be the first to step into it. Fixing his expression determinedly, he more than half expected a violent suction of air to rip him through the portal of an empty airlock and out into the cold, cold nothingness of space. So when the airlock finally did reveal what was beyond, it was with utter astonishment and complete disbelief that he stared into the welcoming cargo hold of Serenity. Turning his baffled gaze to the lieutenant who strode up next to him, the woman only gave him a curt jerk of her head as an explanation. With more than a little hesitance, Mal moved through the shuttle's airlock and into the adjoining one of his beloved ship. Not having a clue what to expect at this point, he wandered into the hold and simply stood and stared around while the rest of his crew and the soldiers followed him inside.
"Give me your hands," the lieutenant ordered, though she did not wait for him to comply but simply grabbed his wrists herself. Mal heard the snap of plastic and felt his bonds drop away. Rubbing his aching joints, he turned to look at her as the rest of the soldiers set to freeing the others in a similar manner. "I've been ordered to give you this," the lieutenant presented him with a handheld Cortex unit, "and to instruct you to accept the wave which you should receive in…" she checked her timepiece. "Two minutes." Too mystified by this turn of events to ask questions, Mal proceeded to stare at her vacuously until she placed the unit in his palms. She met his gaze with a dour twist of her lips that gave not even the barest hint of a reason for all of this before turning smartly and ordering her men back into the shuttle. The airlock slammed solidly behind them, and a few moments later the deck gave a mild shudder as the craft disengaged and its engines thrust it away from Serenity.
"Sir, what just happened?" Zoe spoke first, her practical tone understating her confusion.
"I'll let you know when I figure it out. Is everyone all right?" Mal checked on his crew again.
"Inara? Cap'n, where's Inara?" Kaylee blurted out.
"And River," Simon added, speaking up for the first time since they had left the prison. Mal and Zoe's eyes met in shared concern, but once again Mal put aside his fear.
"I don't know," he responded to both of their questions, "but I reckon we'll find out soon enough."
"You think they're lettin' us go?" asked Jayne.
"I think there's about as much a chance of that as you gettin' to be captain," Mal remarked dryly, but the Cortex alerting him to an incoming wave interrupted his further speculation. Slightly hesitant, Mal authorized the connection and, as the image onscreen materialized, he was shocked to recognized the one person he had least expected to see.
"River!" Simon cried upon hearing his sister's voice. He tore over to Mal's side and very nearly ripped the Cortex unit out of the captain's hands.
"Simon," River greeted her brother evenly, though Mal saw a barely contained flash of relief rush across her expression before it disappeared into a puzzled frown. She stared at both of them for a second. "You cut your hair," she stated, her eyes lingering on Simon's stubbly scalp.
"Oh, yeah," Simon answered and awkwardly rubbed his head. "It was part of our plan to rescue you." River shook her head at him in a familiar and mildly exasperated manner.
"You're such a boob." Her reaction was so utterly normal and characteristic that Mal almost found himself chuckling at it. The moment did not last, though, as her expression turned distant again an instant later.
"Where are you?" Simon questioned her urgently, his brief spell of relief vanishing as well.
"I'm fine, Simon," River answered vaguely and with constrained emotion, igniting Mal's concern. "Please let me speak to the captain."
"But where are you? What's going on?"
"Simon," River urged, the strain carrying through in her voice even though her expression remained neutral.
"Doc," Mal gently but firmly pulled the Cortex unit away from Simon's grasp. Although pained, the doctor gradually let go and Mal moved a few steps away. "What the hell's goin' on here, albatross?" he asked River.
"I've negotiated your release with the Alliance." Mal just blinked at her after she spoke. Considering where he was right now, there was little doubt that was true, but he could not fathom how she had managed it. How could she possibly have arranged for their freedom? He was about to demand more of an explanation, but River cut him off in anticipation of his questions. "You have to trust me, Captain. If you don't do exactly as I say, I can't help you." Mal caught another brief glimpse of her struggling to keep her emotions suppressed behind her blank façade. He frowned. Something was wrong with this, he could feel it. It did not feel like a trap, but the Alliance would never in a million years just agree to letting him and his crew go, no strings attached. Before he could consider what those strings might be, though, a more pressing urge overwhelmed his thoughts.
"Inara? Where is she?"
"She will be arriving soon. She is alive, but her wound was severe. Simon will need to look after her. Make sure he does." On cue, Mal heard the rumble of engines shudder through the hull.
"Sir, there's another ship docking," Zoe called to him as she peered through the portal in the airlock door. "Hold on. Don't go nowhere," he told River. Slipping the unit into his pocket, he jogged over to join Zoe. They both stared out the window at the arriving vessel securing itself to Serenity's airlock.
"Who is it?" Kaylee asked with apprehension after a tense minute of silence.
"It's Inara," Zoe finally responded, glancing back with what was for her a hefty amount of relief. Kaylee uttered a little gasp.
"Doctor. We could use your help here," Mal called to Simon as he heaved open the door. Simon darted to the doorway as two medical technicians appeared, waiting just beyond. They were carrying a stretcher upon which lay Inara. Even expecting it, Mal was not prepared for the rush of emotions that came over him when he saw her. Her usually glowing bronzed skin was unnaturally pale. An oxygen tube ringed her cheeks, and several drip bags slowly fed into an IV in her arm. Her dark hair was a mess, and she looked extremely fragile in only the thin hospital gown beneath the sheet covering her. Simon took one side and Mal moved to the other, both grasping the stretcher to help the medics carry her on board.
"Inara?" Mal called her name almost hesitantly. Her eyelids fluttered and opened, her pupils taking a while to focus before finally resting on him.
"Mal?" she asked, her voice weak and barely a whisper.
"Yeah, it's me," he smiled. She managed a small smile in return.
"Good to see you."
"You the doctor?" one of the medics addressed Simon.
"Yes. What's her condition?" Simon inquired, making an effort to assume his professional demeanor while they moved Inara into the hold.
"She's stable, but she'll need close observation," the one medic answered. "I've got a release here for you to sign off on."
"Okay. Let's move her to the infirmary," Simon ordered.
"Captain?" River's voice chirped from Mal's pocket and Simon hesitated at Inara's side, glancing almost desperately at the device.
"Jayne," Mal called his mercenary over. "Help 'em out," he relinquished his grip on the stretcher to the big man. "You see to her right now, Doctor. I'll take care of this," he instructed Simon. Mal could see him fighting with his urge to attend to his sister first, but he pressed it down with visible effort and led the medics and Jayne on towards the infirmary.
"Is she gonna be okay?" Kaylee came up to Mal, worried.
"She'll be fine. Simon's gonna look after her just like he did you. I know you wanna see her, but I need you to figure out what kind of shape Serenity's in, so you best get to work. All right lil' Kaylee?" Kaylee nodded vigorously, though her lips were tight with concern. "Okay. Let's go," he urged her towards the stairs and she clambered up, heading for the engine room. "Zoe, help her out," he instructed his first mate. Zoe nodded and jogged after Kaylee.
"Captain," River's voice recalled Mal's attention to the Cortex screen again and he squinted down at it.
"Inara's on board. Simon's takin' good care of her," he told her.
"Good. Is Serenity able to fly?"
"I don't know. We took a pretty heavy EMP blast. Looks like somebody fixed the power at least, but Kaylee's checkin' her out right now."
"There isn't much time. I need you to find out. Go to the bridge. Run the diagnostics and tell me what you see." Mal nodded, not questioning her orders or why he was following them, and huffed up the stairs to the bridge. He swung into the helm and tried to bring up the diagnostics routines. A few of the screens on the console were dead, but he finally got the system running. He started reading off the results to River as they came back.
"Controls systems check out okay. Life support's good. We got no nav sat or way to receive the beacon. Nav computer looks solid, though."
"What about the engine?"
"Containment's holding up, but I'm showin' some damage to the fuel cells. Hang on… Kaylee!" Mal switched to the intercom.
"Diagnostic is showin' we're down some fuel cells. What do you see?"
"Things got pretty toasted back here," Kaylee relayed. "I can't check the cells, but it's likely they got fried by the blast. The ones we do got are full, though. Somebody fueled us up."
"Where does that leave us?"
"Well, engine's turnin', and we can move, but I don't know how far we'll get."
"All right. Take care of what you can." Mal turned back to the Cortex. "She's wounded, but she'll hold together," he told River.
"Can she make a hard burn?" River asked.
"Kaylee, could we do a burn if we had to?" Mal called back to the engine room again.
"I don't know, Cap'n," Kaylee's response lacked confidence. "She's pretty roughed up. I wouldn't do it for very long, and we won't be makin' our best time besides."
"Kaylee's not sure," Mal replied to River.
"You don't have a choice. You'll have to try."
"What?" Mal frowned at her.
"I'm uploading a course to you now, Captain. You have to promise me you will take Serenity and leave this system as soon as you can."
"Whoa, now," Mal stopped her. "Believe me, nothin' in the Verse would thrill me more'n to flash my ass at this place, but as you might have noticed, I'm missin' my pilot. Can't go nowhere without her," he raised his eyebrows at the screen.
"She's not coming," River said flatly.
"Says who?" Mal demanded, both his concern and his ire growing. "The Alliance? They can go hump themselves. I ain't leavin' any of mine behind."
"I'm not on your crew anymore."
"Like hell you're not! Now you listen here. I don't care what kind of deal you made…"
"Captain," the word was not a shout, but the authority that rang through River's voice shocked Mal into silence for once. He stared at her, watching as a tremulous shudder wracked her. She closed her eyes and swallowed hard, fighting visibly for her composure. When she looked back at him, her mask of stoicism held, but it could not hide the terrible, forlorn anguish radiating from her gaze. "This is the way it is," she said simply. "You don't have a choice. None of us do. Take Serenity and go, now. Use the course I sent you. It should take you away from here safely. Then get as far away as you can. Once you're gone, don't try to return, or they will kill you all." A long silence hung between them as the meaning of her request finally dawned on Mal.
"You're goin' back to them," he said. "That was the deal you made to get us out. You're goin' back to the Academy." River's head dropped and she did not look at him for a long few seconds. When her face returned to the screen, it was resolute, though tears streaked her cheeks. "No. River, you can't do that," Mal pleaded with her.
"I have to."
"No. We'll come get you. We'll find a way."
"There is no other way. What I've done…" her voice failed for an instant. "They've promised to leave you alone if I turn myself in. That's the only way you will be safe."
"The Alliance's promises ain't worth a heap o' turds!" Mal railed. "You can't trust that they'll hold to it."
"They will," River asserted. "At least long enough for you to get away. Then you stay away. Don't come back for me." Mal heard her words, but he could not accept them. He refused to accept them. This was not how it went, not after everything they had been through. His brain scrambled for another solution, something he could do to alter the situation. He could not let River sacrifice herself like this. He would not lose anyone else to the Alliance's sadistic machinations! But even as his fury charged up, he realized that it was futile. He had no army of Reavers to back him up this time, and no grand principle to stand for. It was just himself, four able-bodied crew members, and a half-crippled ship against the whole might of the Alliance standing between them and River. He could certainly barrel in full-bore to her rescue, but then what? Be shot down in a blaze of glory? No, the Alliance would crush him like a gnat without a second thought, and then go on meddling and destroying people's lives. Nothing would change, and their sacrifice would be meaningless. But even worse, so would River's. Her courage and strength had ensured for them what she never had- a choice. They could choose go on and live their lives as they wanted to, or they could choose to continue fighting and maybe someday right the wrongs she had suffered. Could he throw that away so cavalierly because he could not accept the price? That was not for him to decide this time. With a leaden heart, he realized that for once in all his time as captain, he was not the one in command.
"You understand," River said, watching him closely from the screen, her eyes full of sympathy.
"Yes," Mal answered, though this time it was he who dropped his head. A quiet spell settled over them. "Simon won't let you go," he said after it had passed.
"He has to. That's the only way this will end. Please help him understand." Mal nodded, unable to speak for a moment. When he met her gaze again, he felt such a swell of pride and sorrow in his chest that he was sure it was about to suffocate him. He reckoned he could not have felt any stronger even if she was his own daughter.
"Mal," she addressed him for the first time ever by his name.
"River," he acknowledged her back. Then she drew herself up, her face hardening into an expression uncannily similar to his own. "Make your preparations to depart. I would suggest you sweep Serenity for bugs as soon as you get the chance. Stay off the Cortex and nav feeds. After you've uploaded the course, destroy this Cortex unit. Do not try to reach me." Mal nodded, unable to speak again. She held her gaze on his face for a second, her eyes shimmering and sorrowful, but as determined as ever. "Goodbye, Captain," she said. Then she was gone.
Mal sat still in the helm for a few minutes, unable to bring himself to move. He kept staring at the glowing Cortex screen, empty except for the generic background, waiting and maybe hoping, but nothing happened. Finally, he picked up the unit and set it to connect to Serenity's system. He uploaded the course that River had provided, and then disconnected the unit and powered it down. Placing it on the floor, he stood up from his seat, and with one final hesitant look, he lifted his boot and brought it down on the screen. The display splintered into a network of jagged cracks, and the casing snapped and buckled. Leaving it where it was, he re-took the helm and reached for the intercom.
"Doc," he called down to the infirmary. "How's Inara doin'?"
"She's stabilized," Simon replied after a brief silence.
"Good. Make sure she's not gonna go anywhere. Have Jayne show the med techs back to their ship."
"Captain, where's River? What did she…" Mal turned off the feed before the doctor could finish. He switched the com to the engine room circuit and called to Kaylee.
"Kaylee, what's her status?"
"I'm a little busy, Cap'n," Kaylee's answer was slightly distant coming through the speaker.
"Well tie up whatever it is you're doin' and get her squared away. I wanna go hard burn in as soon as we can."
"I got us a course, and I need her ready for burn. Can you do that?" Mal repeated.
"Yeah, but I don't understand. Where're we goin'?"
"We're leavin'," Mal said.
"But what about River?"
"Sir, what's goin' on?" Zoe interrupted, taking the com from Kaylee.
"We can't stay here," Mal said, his voice strained but calm. "Now, I need you to both listen to me and do what I say. As soon as that med transport is away, we're goin' hard burn. Kaylee, get it set up and call me when she's ready." He hung up the mic, but left the channel open, ignoring their further protests. Turning to the console, he secured the helm and started cross-checking all of his systems. He felt the hull shudder slightly and leaned closer to the viewports, watching as the medical ship drifted away from his airlock and fired its engines.
"Captain, what's going on? Where's River?" Simon demanded, stomping up to the bridge. Mal did not answer him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the doctor spy the damaged Cortex unit on the floor.
"What happened?" he asked.
"She told me to destroy it," Mal explained matter-of-factly.
"What? Why would you do that? I didn't even get to see her!" Simon's face was full of incredulous anger, but it turned to confusion as he watched Mal at the controls. "What are you doing?"
"We can't stay here waitin' for the Alliance to pick us up again. We're leavin'."
"But we can't. We have to go back for River." Mal paused in his workings at the console and heaved a burdensome sigh.
"Sorry, Doc," he shook his head sadly at Simon. "Not this time." Simon stared at him, his eyes widening in horrific realization.
"No… you can't…," he said, staggered by what Mal was suggesting. "Captain, we can't leave her there!"
"It ain't my choice."
"Then take us back!" Simon cried.
"You don't wanna go there, Doctor," Mal responded, turning back to the controls.
"You mean you don't want to go there. Well I don't give a hump what you want! We're going back after her!" he shouted. Mal glared up at him now.
"We've had this discussion about you givin' orders on my boat before," he warned.
"I don't care about your gorram boat! She's my sister!" Rage erupted in Simon and he hauled Mal out of the helm by his shirt front.
"Get your ruttin' hands off of me!" Mal tried to shove him away, but Simon pushed him into the console. "We're not leaving her!" the doctor ranted as Mal struggled with him.
"I told you… it ain't… my choice!" Mal gritted through his teeth. Hearing the pounding of boots on the grating, Mal looked behind Simon and spotted Zoe rushing up to the bridge with Jayne and Kaylee right behind her.
"Zoe! Get him off me!" he hollered. Zoe and Jayne each grabbed one of Simon's arms and pinned them behind his back. They dragged him off Mal while he continued flailing wildly, trying to break free.
"Let go of me! He's going to leave her! He's going to leave her with them! Gorram you!" he swore.
"It's not my choice!" Mal thundered, silencing the doctor. The two stared at each other, breathing like enraged bulls, but Mal backed off first, his anger swiftly giving way. "It's not my choice," he repeated. His shoulder sagged as he stared down at the floor.
"What do you mean, sir?" Zoe prodded him.
"River made a deal to get us free," he explained. "And that deal didn't include her." He swept a heavy gaze over all of them as they started to understand.
"No, she wouldn't have," Simon refuted. "She would never go back to them. You can't leave her! We have to save her!"
"She saved us, Doctor," Mal emphasized. "She gave herself up to save us. Now I know you would trade places with her if you could, and so would I, but we can't. And gettin' yourself killed ain't gonna change that." He watched the anger on Simon's face slowly melting into helplessness as he spoke. He turned back to the helm, partially so he would not have to see it. "She made me promise to get us out of here before she signed off, and it's the least I can do for her to honor that promise."
"Honor? By turning and running?" Simon demanded, his voice full of anguish now.
"By living," Mal said sharply, spinning around again. "We go on living for her," he looked at each one of his crew in turn. "Now, I ain't sayin' we're givin' up on everything," he said, his eyes finally resting on Simon. "But this one's over, Doc." He shook his head slightly. "This one's over." Simon gritted his teeth in defiance.
"No," he said, but his voice broke as he said it. "No…" His chin fell to his chest and he went limp in Jayne and Zoe's grasp. They slowly released him and he sank to his knees, head in his hands. A tearful Kaylee came forward and wrapped her arms around him. Both of their bodies shook with sorrow. Mal just watched them for a few minutes, the bridge entirely silent except for their sobs.
"Kaylee?" he finally asked very gently. "Kaylee?"
"Yeah, Cap'n?" she sniffed and looked up at him, wiping her eyes.
"Are we ready for burn?"
"Yeah, Cap'n," she confirmed, her voice quavering.
"I'll do it, sir," Zoe answered, anticipating his question. He looked at her and she gave him a small nod, though her eyes were distant. He nodded back and she disappeared down the foredeck stairs. Mal rotated himself back to the console and finished running through a final sequence check.
"Good to go, sir," Zoe called to him over the com in short order.
"All right. On my mark. Three… two… one..." Serenity's main engine emitted a mournful whine, shuddering and faltering a bit before it wound up. Then it thrust the ship off into the black, leaving a plasma trail stream that glistened like tears on the cheeks of the heavens.
"Serenity has left Osiris space, sir. Patrol is reporting they've lost visual and radar contact." As the announcement came over her Cortex, River felt a tremendous surge of relief overtake her. She closed her eyes and smiled slightly, even as tears tried to squeeze out from beneath her lids. Her friends were safe. They were free. That was all that mattered to her now. She held on to that feeling for as long as she could, never wanting to forget it. To know that they were beyond the grasp of the Alliance, that was the closest she had ever felt to freedom. But it did not last, as she knew it would not. Now that they were away, her time had come as well.
"Are you satisfied, Miss Tam?" Chu-yu's hard tone eroded her brief moment of joy. She glanced at Kriegel's Cortex unit in her hand which held the representative's glowering face.
"Yes," she answered.
"Good. Will you stand down now?"
"Yes." That one word was so laden with emotion that it almost did not make it out of her throat. She closed her eyes again. This was it. A silent tear slid down one cheek. She wiped it away, opening her eyes and willing the steely resolve she had displayed earlier back into her posture. She would at least face it with dignity, not like a whimpering child. "Here is where you will find me, Representative," she said to him, giving him a set of coordinates. Then she flicked off the Cortex. Leaving it on the shelf, she passed a blank glance over Kriegel and his son, then made her way up to the cockpit. "Land there," she pointed the delivery pilot towards another nearby park with plenty of open green space for the ship to set down. The man banked the craft around, slowing as he descended, until he touched down gently on the grass. Holstering her pistol, she exited the vehicle from the passenger's side.
"Wha… where are you going?" the man asked, more as a reflex than out of actual curiosity.
"I'm going home," she told him. "You're free to go. Take them wherever they want," she nodded towards the cargo hold before slamming the door. The delivery man gaped at her through the window for a few seconds. Then, realizing that she was being truthful, he powered up his craft's engines and shot into the air again. River watched him tear off towards the sun sinking on the horizon until he banked out of sight behind a line of trees. Then she just stood there, staring down at the grass. The gentle evening breeze ruffled her hair and brushed against her bare legs beneath her dress. It reminded her of Anna, and she smiled faintly. She hoped the woman and her husband had found refuge somewhere far away from this place. They deserved to be safe and happy. After a moment, she bent down and removed her gun and holster, letting the weapon fall to the ground. Her boots and socks followed. Resettling her bare feet on the cool greenery, she wriggled her toes, relishing in the feeling of the blades of grass slipping between them. Then, leaving her accessories behind, she set off across the lawn.
Within five minutes, she heard the first of the SREVs screaming towards the park. Lying on her back on a knoll now, River opened her eyes and watched as the ship tore overhead at a low altitude. It banked back around for another pass, and within seconds, two more had joined the first. They circled like vultures, slowing until they were hovering several dozen meters over her grassy hilltop, their engine wash turning the grass into rolling green waves. Spotlights sliced through the deepening twilight and focused on her. A rumble of a different type drew her eyes downward from the ships, and she saw four heavily-armored troop carriers barreling their way across the green space. Flinging dirt and sending the parks' few other patrons scurrying for cover, the vehicles converged on her knoll and skidded to a halt near the base. Sitting up cross-legged, she watched with detached curiosity as a gray and purple armored wall made up of fully four squads Federal regulars poured out of the vehicles and advanced on her. She sat still, her hands folded in her lap, waiting.
"Stay where you are!"
"Do not move!"
"Hands in the air!" harsh orders rang out all around. She made no move to either obey or resist them. As the soldiers closed tighter around her, she felt their singular attention pounding into her mind. She fought against the almost suffocating pressure of their thoughts and looked down at the grass between her legs. She brushed a hand over it, almost lovingly, like a parting touch. It was time to go. Moving with exaggerated care, she unfolded her legs and started to stand up. She barely made it to her knees before the barrage descended on her. She felt only the briefest moment of the impacts. Then everything went dark.