Presets

By analogarhythmagic

Scifi / Drama

Chapter 21

Matthias heard a gasp and his eyes flew open. Panicked thoughts assaulted his mind and he found himself staring up at his wife, her face full of wide-eyed fright. She was as white as a ghost and was saying something to him, but her voice was hollow and too muffled by the ringing in his ears for him to understand. It took a few more seconds before his hearing adjusted back to normal.

"Matthias!" she cried his name.

"Yes," he wheezed, realizing that he was taking heavy, panting breaths. She fell on him and gave him a hug full of half-petrified relief. "What happened?" he mumbled, not entirely sure of even where he was, let alone what was going on. His mouth was dry and seemed to not want to work properly. His head was pounding as well.

"I couldn't reach you," Anna told him, her voice shaky. "You stopped breathing. Then you had some sort of seizure." Groggily, Matthias sat himself up, his pulse still throbbing in his temples. He felt something warm trickling out of his nose. He wiped at it and blood smeared his fingers.

"Here, lie back down," Anna tried to push him back to the floor, but he resisted.

"I'm fine," he dismissed her concern. His dazed eyes drifted to the floor where he spied River's body, and instantaneously all of his confusion was slammed aside by recollection. He scrambled awkwardly to her side, his limbs still remembering how to move again. Leaning over her, he searched her face for any sign of movement. There was none. Resting his fingers against her throat, he felt for a pulse. As he did, her body suddenly shuddered, drawing in one final weak gasp. But as that last breath slipped out of her, a smile of such rapturous joy overspread her face. All the sorrow and torment that had been there was wiped away in an instant, leaving her pure and innocent again. That smile dazzled Matthias' awareness, engulfing him with its brilliance, and for a moment he swore he could see her dancing. Then it was gone. She was gone. He dropped his head, heaving a shuddering sigh as he tried to control his emotions. Beside him, Anna sniffed, muffling a sob. She had felt it as well. "She's free," he pronounced very softly.

Their fellow rescuer was at the helm when they slowly made their way onto the small ship's cramped bridge.

"The Alliance has cleared us to leave Osiris space, which means they don't know we were involved in the assault on the Academy," he said when he heard them enter. "I've set course for Epeuva and the nearest medical facility. How is she?" he asked. As he did, he cast a quick glance over his shoulder, but his eyes froze when he saw Matthias' despondent expression.

"I'm sorry," Matthias hung his head. "I couldn't save her. It was too much for her, what they did." The man's eyes drifted downward before his head swung slowly back to the viewport. He sank a little deeper into the helm.

"Then we have failed." No one moved or spoke for a long time, a pall hanging over all of them.

"We should try to reach Serenity," said Matthias softly, finally breaking the leaden stillness. "They need to know. Can you do that?" The man nodded and reached across the console for his broadwave display. He entered a code and sent the request. Then he levered himself out of the helm.

"They should hear it from you, Doctor," he said, facing Matthias with hooded eyes. "I will go and sit with her. Call me when you're through." He shuffled past Anna and off the bridge. Matthias watched him for a second before settling himself into the helm's chair. The wave was still trying to connect and it took a while longer before the signal got a response. When it finally did, it was Captain Reynolds' anxious expression that met him from the small screen. Matthias felt a tiny yet guilty sprig of relief that it was not Simon who had answered, but that hardly made the moment any easier.

"Doctor Harder?" Mal greeted with puzzlement.

"Captain," Matthias returned.

"Not sure it's a wise idea for you to be wavin' us, although I can't say I ain't glad to see you. We're in sore need of help." Matthias swallowed, his response sticking in his throat as he tried to work up the strength to state his purpose. "River's in trouble," Mal went on. "The Academy's got her. She tried to escape, and she managed to wave us, but she said she couldn't get out. Then she… she…" the captain trailed off, grotesque fear disfiguring his expression and sending stabs of pain through Matthias' heart. "We gotta get her back," Mal smothered his fear behind desperate determination.

"Captain…"

"Look, I know I got no right to ask you to put yourself at risk, but you know what she's facin' better 'n anyone. If you got anything that might help us get to her…"

"Captain," Matthias tried to interrupt again, closing his eyes in a vain attempt to shield himself from the inevitable.

"I ain't askin' lightly, but I got no other options," Mal finished, almost pleading.

"Captain… I… I have River," Matthias finally managed to spit out the words, striking Mal into dumbfounded silence. "We were able to break into the Academy, with some help," he explained. "We got her out, but… but it was too late." His heart broke as he watched the brief spark of hope in the captain's eyes be extinguished by black horror. He had to drop his gaze, but even then he was unable to keep his voice from cracking. "I'm sorry."

"What're you sayin', doctor?" Mal demanded. Matthias glanced back up and saw the captain's jaw set in stubborn refusal against the implication, almost willing it to not be true.

"River is dead," Matthias uttered, employing every milligram of his self-control to keep his eyes on the screen while he did. As his words sank in, Mal remained quiet, blinking several times. His eyes grew glassy and he eventually turned his head away, holding a faraway stare at something unseen off camera. "I tried everything I could. There was nothing more I could do," Matthias added, not sure if he was trying to reassure himself or convince the captain.

"I understand," Mal's subdued reply came after a long spell of nearly suffocating silence, his composure clearly holding by a thread. "Is she still with you?"

"Yes," Matthias nodded.

"If you could bring her here, that'd be…." Mal's words got choked off and he cleared his throat roughly. "We'd appreciate it if you would do that."

"I will."

"I'll send you our coordinates," Mal pushed some buttons on his console to transmit the data.

"We'll be there as soon as we can."

"Thank you, Doctor," Mal's parting was almost numb. Matthias nodded silently at the screen. The captain returned the gesture, and then the wave ended. Slouching back in the helm, Matthias wished he could feel numb as well. Behind him, Anna's composure finally reached its limit and she dissolved into sobs. Rising, Matthias wrapped her in his arms. Holding her tight, he let his own tears finally flow freely as well.

The man found them still clinging to each other when he returned to the bridge a few minutes later. Matthias nodded to him in response to his silent question.

"I started making preparations," the man said, lowering his gaze, "but I feel it's not proper for me to attend to her any further."

"We'll see to it," Matthias agreed, wiping his eyes.

"Thank you."

"We have Serenity's coordinates. They asked us to bring her to them."

"Of course," the man replied without hesitance. He reestablished himself in the helm and started setting their course. Matthias left him to his duty, leading Anna back into the hold. It was a small solace, but he comforted the both of them with the resolve that they would do their best to finally give River all the honor and dignity she so well deserved in life.

Several hours later, Matthias found himself standing with Anna in the airlock of their tiny ship, cradling River in his arms once more. Her body was now wrapped in a thick plastic tarpaulin that was the best substitute for a shroud he and Anna could find. Only her face, cold and waxen, remained visible. He forced himself not to look down at it, trying not to feel anything as he fixed his eyes straight ahead at the featureless steel of the airlock door, the only thing separating them from the frozen nothingness outside. Despite being safely behind the barrier, though, some of that infinite chill still seemed to seep through, settling itself directly on his heart, exacerbating the ache he could not totally suppress. He sighed, fortifying his mental barriers against the emotions, but there was little else he could do to make what was to come any easier. Beside him, Anna did not move or speak, but he felt the unmistakable flicker of her affection touching him in solidarity and sympathy. There was a brief scrape of metal-on-metal from beyond the door, which was then followed by the shuddering impact of two airlocks meeting. When the light on the controls indicated a positive seal, Anna opened their ship's portal with a sibilant rush of air. Serenity's scorch-marked silvery-gray exterior greeted them. A few seconds dragged agonizingly by before a dark face peered through the cloudy window in the other ship's airlock, and then the heavy door was peeled back. The captain's haunted eyes met Matthias first from the other side, but he barely had a chance to move before Simon rushed into the opening.
"No… River. Mei mei," the young man murmured, distraught and pleading. He very nearly tore River from Matthias' grasp, his hands desperately reaching for his sister's face in search of signs of life that were not there. But it was his wrenching grief that actually caused Matthias to stagger. With Simon still clinging to River's side, Matthias willed strength into his composure and threaded his way awkwardly through the threshold.

"Jayne," the captain spoke to the big man who was standing just inside Serenity's airlock with a stretcher in hand. Jayne shuffled forward and laid it at Matthias' feet. Matthias eased River's body down onto it, and Simon crumpled next to her. Pressing his forehead to her ashen brow, his tears sprinkled her dark hair. Uttering a broken sob of her own, Kaylee fell down next to him and put her arms gingerly around his shoulders. They shook together in sorrow. The captain took a few steps closer as well, tacit, his eyes dark and barren as they gazed down at River's corpse. Zoe, who had remained statuesque at the airlock door until now, also came to stand by, moving behind Simon and Kaylee, completing the circle. The veteran soldier was not crying, but her eyes were not dry either. Matthias stepped back, letting them mourn, his hand automatically finding Anna's. They gripped each other's fingers tightly. No one spoke or moved for a very long time. Everything seemed dull and colorless in the oppressive sorrow smothering the hold.

Eventually, the captain seemed to shake himself from its grip a little and turned to face the two of them.

"Thank you… for bringin' her back to us," Mal spoke, his words breaking a little in the middle of his sentence.

"I'm sorry," Matthias repeated in weak apology. "Maybe if we'd reached her sooner I could have done more to help." He knew his words would offer no consolation, but he could not think of anything else to say.

"You did more 'n enough, Doctor. The both of you risked your lives for her. I know you tried, and we owe you somethin' we can never repay."

"If I could've given my life to save her, I would have," he stated, somewhat surprised to hear the words come out of his mouth, but recognizing that they were true all the same. Anna nodded almost immediately in agreement, wiping her damp eyes with the back of her hand.

"So would I," Mal added in a tone laced with depths of regret.

"And so would I," a third voice added. Matthias turned to find their pilot and co-conspirator standing somberly in the airlock behind them. But before he could think, let alone make any kind of introduction, a violent wave of pure loathing surged from Mal and roiled his guts with its ferocity. In less than the blink of an eye the captain's sidearm was out of its holster and drawn on the man. Zoe's stunned gaze lingered on his shadowy face for only a fraction of a second longer. Then, with a searing flash of hostility that rivaled Mal's in its intensity, her mare's leg was in her hands and cocked with surety as she leveled it at the man's head.

"What in the gorram hell is he doin' here?" Mal grated in a voice so hate-laced that it hardly sounded human at all, let alone like his own. Matthias opened his mouth to explain, realizing he had missed something terribly important, but he did not get a single word out before Simon tore past him, rushing forward in a deadly rage.

"You gorram self-righteous son of a whore!" he screamed as he slammed the man into the wall of the airlock. For his part, the man made no move to resist or even defend himself. He let the doctor jerk him repeatedly against the metal hull like prey in the jaws of a savage dog. "You killed her!" Simon railed, fury flying from his mouth with each shake. "You and your rutting Parliament, and their god-forsaken Academy! Is this what you wanted? Did you come here to gloat?" Somehow, the man managed to look vaguely hurt by the accusation.

"No, Doctor Tam. I brought her here because I owed her a debt. I owed all of you a debt. This is my way of repaying it."

"I seem to remember makin' you a promise the last time I saw you. You think I ain't a man of my word?" Mal was standing just behind Simon now. He raised his pistol at their pilot's forehead, his eyes flashing dangerously.

"I never doubted you, Captain," the man replied, unfazed. "And now that I have fulfilled my obligation, you may do with me as you like." He lowered his head in submission. Matthias caught a few incipient flashes from the captain's mind while his finger flexed on the trigger, but even as brief as they were, he could make out the unmistakably gruesome images they contained. Unfortunately, that only further confused him. He turned his increasingly disturbed expression on the man's dark face. Who was he? And if Mal's memories and the reactions of everyone else were to be believed, what was he doing helping them? Was it a plot to use him and Anna to betray Serenity? Perhaps that was why the man had kept his thoughts so well guarded. But that did not make any sense. Besides, his assistance in helping rescue River had been invaluable, that was undeniable. They would never have gotten anywhere near the Academy without him, let alone even known about her capture. Not knowing the full scope of the man's transgressions, Matthias could not say whether or not he should continue to trust him, but he knew he had better figure out the truth before more innocent blood was spilled.

"Wait! He helped us. Captain, please!" he hurried forward, grabbing Mal's arm.

"You have any idea what this jian ge yao guai has done?" Mal growled, glancing aside at Matthias and his wife.

"We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for his help," Anna took up Matthias' plea. "He tried to save her, no less that we did."

"But she's still dead. And even if he was tryin' to help her, that don't make up for the others he's murdered," Mal retorted.

"No, it certainly does not," the man replied. He looked up and, although his expression was well controlled, Matthias could feel the regret and sadness issuing from him. "I once told you that I was a monster, and that I had no illusions about it," he spoke to Mal. "But it turns out I was wrong. And when those illusions were broken, I was broken. But I could not just curl up and die, Captain. No, that would be the way of a coward. So I chose to try to atone for my sins, even though I knew it might kill me." He stared pointedly at the barrel of Mal's pistol. "I am not asking for your forgiveness. I know I do not deserve it. All I ask is that I might have an honorable death." Matthias sensed that almost every fraction of the captain's being was telling him to grant that request. Almost, except for one little piece. That part, for whatever reason, pitied the man, and it was just enough to stay his hand. Against all odds and all possible explanation, the man had brought River back to them. To Matthias' relief, he watched Mal very slowly relinquish his aim and lower his weapon.

"Zoe," the captain said without shifting his attention. "Get some cuffs." The first mate's glare remained locked and fearsome on the man as she moved, and her gun did not shift from him until she was more than halfway out of the cargo hold. "You're gonna stay locked up 'till this is all over. They'll we'll decide how to deal with you," Mal said coldly.

"As I said, Captain, I am at your mercy."

"Jayne, take him. Make sure he's locked secure in one of the passenger dorms." With a scowl of unmitigated disgust, Jayne lurched forward. Grabbing the man by the collar, he manhandled him out of the airlock and towards the rear of the ship. Simon's eyes burned as they followed him out of sight, but when he was gone they fell back on River and all of his anger promptly vanished, crushed beneath a mountain of anguish that even his hate could not surmount. He knelt down next to his sister again and gently took her hand between his, hunching over it and pressing it to his chest.

"River," Simon touched his brow against hers again and remained there. His tears ran across her cheeks as he spoke, unaware of anything but his loss and sorrow. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I was supposed to protect you, to take care of you, but I didn't. And now you're gone. I don't know what to do. You were the most important thing in my life. More important than being a doctor, more important than…. anything. I just wanted to bring you back. I thought I could, but… I wish I could have helped you. I wish it was me instead of you they had taken…" His voice faltered for a second. "Mei mei…" he whispered one last time, pressing a gentle kiss to River's forehead. Kaylee, who had remained at River's side throughout, holding back sobs and stroking the girl's hair, fell into renewed crying at Simon's tender, desolate speech. Mal had turned and was standing over the two of them again, and his earlier wrath was completely dissolved as well. There was just a quaver on his lip now, his eyes glassy as he stared into space. Even Matthias felt his heart rending anew, and both he and Anna failed to keep their cheeks dry against the overwhelming emotion.

After an unaccounted for space of time, Simon stood up slowly, his red-rimmed eyes taking in those remaining around him. He wiped the salty streaks from his face.

"Captain," he turned to Mal in the end. "I wonder if you would… help me honor her properly." The two looked at each other for a long time, and the doctor's eyes began to fill up again before Mal finally nodded. He knelt down and grasped one side of the stretcher. Kaylee untangled herself and grabbed a corner as well. Matthias and Anna then quickly came forward and lifted the ends at River's feet. Simon gave them a tiny but meaningful nod of gratitude before he grasped the remaining handle for himself and led them towards the commons.

Carefully they maneuvered the stretcher down the stairs from the cargo bay and into the infirmary. Once there, Matthias was surprised to find that the main exam chair was occupied by Inara, and even more surprised to find her looking so pale and frail, with several monitors and IV drips feeding from her arms. She appeared to be asleep at first, but her eyelids fluttered open as they placed River's body on the counter that served as a makeshift secondary bed.

"Mal?" her voice was a near-whisper as she called to the captain. Mal moved over to her side and took her hand in a tender gesture. The Companion slowly turned her head and saw River lying on the stretcher nearby, still and silent. "What's going on?" she asked, disturbed this time as her eyes returned to his face. Matthias watched the captain trying to be strong as he met her gaze, but he could not maintain it. He swallowed hard and had to look away, unable to answer her. Confusion and disbelief dawned in Inara's eyes first, followed by horror as she read what was in Mal's expression. "No… oh, no," she croaked as her face filled with sadness. A rattling cough shook her frame then, drawing Simon's attention from River's side. He moved to attend to the Companion, but Matthias intervened.

"I'll look after her," he offered as he grasped Simon by the arm. Simon hesitated at first, but then lowered his head and nodded, returning to his sister. Matthias turned to checking Inara's infusions and her monitors while making an effort not to look at the tears that were now dampening the corners of her eyes.

"He's secured," Zoe announced, returning from the passenger dorm at that moment. She paused in the doorway after a quick glance about, and the subtle darkness that had been there before settled over her visage again. Simon in the meantime was in the process of unwrapping the tarp from around River's body, revealing the oversized orderly's uniform she wore. He stared at it for a moment.

"Kaylee," he turned to the mechanic beside him, his voice cracking at first as he fought to control it. "I wonder if you could go to her room and… and find something else…" He could not finish, but Kaylee nodded in understanding, wiping her eyes.

"Yeah, sure."

"I'll help," Zoe offered.

"I will, too," Anna volunteered as well.

"Thank you," said Simon to all three of them, clearly grateful despite his numb-sounding words. Anna touched Kaylee's shoulder in a reassuring manner, and the two women exited the infirmary arm in arm, with Zoe following them up the rear stairwell. Simon slowly turned back to the counter and stood there in silence, his head hung low. Matthias moved from Inara's side to stand beside him, taking care not to get too close lest he intrude too much on this very private moment. But he had promised River to tell her brother her final wishes. Maybe it would provide Simon with some comfort, and maybe not, but either way he could not fail to carry out that oath.

"Simon," he started very softly, so that only the other doctor could hear. "Before she died, I was able to reach her, into her mind. I saw her. She asked me to tell you not to give up, to keep fighting for her and the others at the Academy. And she asked me to tell you that this was her choice. She didn't want you to feel sorry for her. She was strong, but even the strongest grow tired of the struggle. She just wanted to be free from it, and I…" his words caught and he had to clear his throat to keep his composure as the memories River had shown him surged back through his mind. "I couldn't take that away from her." Simon turned to him, and Matthias could see through his vitreous gaze that he understood.

"Thank you," he whispered. "For everything you've done for her." It was Matthias' turn to hang his head now. He could not help but feel that he did not deserve such appreciation after failing to save her, despite knowing that he did not have a choice. It had been up to River, and he truly could not have done anything else, no matter what he thought. He would just have to learn to live with that, for to wallow in guilt would have been a selfish indulgence and an insult to her memory. Without a further word, he stepped respectfully back and left brother and sister alone one last time.


Walking at the head of the small procession from the infirmary to the cargo bay, Simon moved in a daze. It had been barely more than an hour since he had learned of River's death, and now here was doing his best to try to preserve her body long enough until they could give her a proper funeral. He wanted take her remains back home, but he knew that was an impossibility. They would never get anywhere near Osiris again before the Alliance blew them out of the sky, and he could not even wave his father to let him know what had happened without risking some reprisal. He fumed at that, furious that the government had taken away from her even the possibility of a dignified death. So he had to improvise instead. After completing the official report on her cause of death, he had washed and brushed her hair, cleaned up the various scrapes and the bullet wound, and tried to set her broken leg into a normal position. Kaylee, Zoe, and Anna had helped fit her into the best dress that she had. When it was all done, though, it had taken him a long time to finally place her inside the clear plastic body bag, his hands trembling as they sealed it up. Now, his slow footsteps brought him toward the doors in the cargo bay floor. Behind him, Zoe, Mal, Jayne, and Dr. Harder each held a corner of the stretcher, pallbearers for her makeshift bier. Kaylee and Anna trailed behind, supporting Inara between the two of them.

Upon reaching the doors, Simon drew to a halt. He felt disgusted by the ignominy of what he was about to do, but he did not have much choice. Shoving away his revulsion, he forced his feet to move aside and waited for the procession stop next to him. The four set the stretcher carefully on the floor. Zoe left the group, returning momentarily with some tethers from the EVA suit locker. She, Jayne, and Dr. Harder then set to carefully wrapping the cords around River's body and the stretcher. Meanwhile, Simon and Mal silently donned their space suits. When everything was cross-checked and sealed, they both rejoined the group and stood by. Holding the control box, Zoe opened the interior doors. Simon and the captain clambered into the opening, and then Zoe, Jayne, and Dr. Harder helped ease the stretcher down to them. Once River's body was inside, he and Mal crouched down next to her. With his hand trembling slightly, Simon felt for the safety hook along the wall and latched his tether to it. He heard Mal do the same. Then they both began fastening the several tethers around River and the stretcher to the remaining hooks.

"We're secure here. Go ahead," Mal's voice crackled over the speaker in Simon's helmet when they were through. Above them, Zoe pressed the button on the control box again and the doors over their heads slowly sung closed, slamming shut like the lid of a sarcophagus. Simon heard the faint hiss and felt the tug of a breeze against his suit as the atmosphere was purged from the chamber. Once that was complete, he glanced down at his feet and felt his stomach do flip-flops as the outer doors beneath him cracked open, letting in the cold, cold vacuum of space. Clinging to the wall, he watched the stretcher start to drift in the zero-gravity environment, carefully restrained by the tethers.

"You okay?" Mal asked him, concern evident in the expression behind his visor. Despite not really being so, Simon nodded. Carefully, his arms still shaking, he released his tether and followed Mal out through the open bay doors. As soon as he was clear, he swiftly activated his magnetic boots and was drawn safely against Serenity's hull. Turning back, trying to adjust his balance to the sudden loss of orientation due to the lack of gravity, he saw River floating almost gracefully on her moorings.

She always did love to dance, he could not prevent the thought from breaking through, and it nearly overwhelmed him with emotion.

"You need some time?" offered Mal beside him. Simon shook his head, taking repeated deep breaths to regain his poise. Although he desperately wanted to spend one more moment with his sister, he had already said all the goodbyes he could manage, and he knew that if he stayed any longer he might never be able to leave.

"Let's go," he managed to say, and forcing himself not to look back, the two of them clomped up the side of Serenity's hull and to the topside hatch.

Back inside the cargo bay, Simon slowly stripped off his suit. Doing whatever he could to not think of River floating out in blackness just beneath his feet, he let his eyes wander over the crew, still gathered in the hold. They were his family. River's family. He knew he would not have been able to endure this without their strength and support. But even so, he also knew that there was more struggle to come. The battle was not over yet. Challenges, perhaps even greater than this, still awaited them. And though he badly wanted to just forget everything and flee to the farthest corner of the Verse right now, he knew he could not. River had given them the ammunition to stop the Alliance, and what she had suffered as a consequence was far more than he had endured, including this. She had fought on until she could fight no more, and now it was time for him to pick up the standard. Now he would take the battle to the Alliance. Feeling a deep, almost instinctual determination creeping in beneath his sorrow, he knew he had to keep going for her, and he would either be victorious or die trying. Now it was his turn.


Mal let his gaze wander around the commons from where he leaned on the bulkhead near the infirmary. He and his crew were gathered together along with the Harders at the turning point of yet another terrible episode in their collective lives. He knew they had to make a decision soon about how to proceed with the information River had provided to them, but he found it hard to turn his thoughts to anything other than the fact that she was gone. He was stuck in neutral.

How do you go on after this? he asked himself. You just keep movin', was the answer that came back. That was the only way. It was how he survived after the war. It was how they managed to eat and stay occasionally employed. It was how they carried on after Miranda. And it was how they would find some closure for this. They just had to keep going until it was done.

"So what's the plan, Cap?" Jayne rumbled. "We gonna go in like before?"

"No," Mal said. "We gotta do this right. We need to get this to someone who'll believe it. Someone who's got the power to shut down the Academy and call these hun dan to answer for what they done."

"We should release it to the newsfeeds. They'll spread it to every world in every system," Simon insisted.

"It won't be enough," Mal shook his head. "It didn't work with Miranda, and it's even less likely to work now. They can't sort through it all and make sense out of it for people. Besides, most of 'em are on the Alliance's leash anyhow. They won't risk runnin' anything that's actually critical of the government. We need someone who'll put the truth out there without distortin' it."

"Do we know anybody with those kind of contacts?" Zoe asked.

"I do," Inara broke in from her seat on the couch.

"Inara…" Mal started to counter her.

"I'm not getting left out of this, Mal," she asserted to him as much as her weakened state would allow. "I know some people within the Guild who might be able to help us."

"But you're suspended, remember?" Mal reminded her. At that mention, her face fell, and Mal regretted saying anything. However, he had to be realistic, otherwise there was no point.

"I think I know someone who can help," Dr. Harder offered. All eyes turned to him. He led their glances down the hall towards the passenger dorm.

"That ain't even an option," Mal dismissed the insinuation contemptuously.

"Why not?" Dr. Harder pressed. "He got us into the Academy, and in and out of Osiris without the Alliance ever knowing. He also knew that you were captured before that information was publicly released. He even knew that Anna and I had been here and was able to track us down after we left. He has to have connections." Mal straightened up, rounding on the doctor.

"I don't care! I swore that man would never lay a hand on River. Some of mine already gave their lives to stop him once. And now you want me to trust him with this? He may have convinced you to put your faith in him with the bit of goodwill he's done, but I've seen the real man behind those deeds."

"I'm not asking you to give him the information," Dr. Harder clarified. "I'm just asking you to talk to him. Find out what he knows. He helped bring River here knowing full well what it would cost him. I'm sure he'd be willing to go a little farther."

"He could just lie to us," Zoe argued tersely.

"No, he can't," Anna's reply was prompt and confident, beating her husband's.

"That's right," Dr. Harder confirmed, with a quick smile full of pride and love for his wife. "He can't lie to us. I know we don't know him as you do, and he is very good at controlling his thoughts, so it has been difficult to read him. However, no one can hide their intentions, no matter how much control they have." Dr. Harder looked from Zoe to Mal to Simon, none of whom appeared wholly convinced. "You don't have to trust him," he urged. "Just us." Mal pursed his lips, considering. He would much rather put a bullet in the Operative's brainpan and shove him out of the airlock than ask him for help, but he could not deny that Dr. Harder raised a good point. The Operative had known almost everything that had been going on, meaning he still had to have some sources deep within the Alliance. And thus far his actions indicated that he was not trying to play them. Anna and Matthias seemed sure of that at least, and that was something. So even though he was certain there was another way to get the information out that would not involve requesting more aid from the sociopathic former assassin, he knew it would take time to find it. It could be weeks or months, maybe even years. He could not in good conscience wait that long. This travesty needed to be brought to an end now. Swallowing the disgust in his mouth like bad medicine, Mal knew it was the right thing to do. But it was not completely up to him. He turned to Simon with a full look.

"It's your call, Doc," he left it out there. Simon heaved a terrible sigh and his shoulders slumped. He sat that way for spell before his back straightened and he glanced back at Mal.

"Yes," he nodded in agreement.

"Fine," said Mal in a curt tone and jerked from his position on the wall. "Let's go have a chat."

With the half of the gathering trailing behind him, Mal strode the short distance down the hall to the cabin where the Operative was being held. At the door, he motioned for Zoe and Jayne to stand guard. Then he disengaged the lock and slid the door back. The Operative, hands shackled behind his back, sat on the bed. His head came up as Mal, Simon, and the Harders entered. They stood arrayed before him and his cool eyes regarded each of them somberly.

"Have you come to decide my fate now?" he asked in the manner of a simple inquiry.

"That depends," Mal answered, vaguely threatening. "First, we want to ask you somethin'." The Operative's eyes slipped to the Harders, both of their expressions narrowing intently on him, but he did not hesitate to answer.

"Name it," he said. Mal turned to Simon, who clearly had to muster the will to speak to the Operative without physically assaulting him again.

"Are you truthful about wanting to repay your debt?" he asked, his own gaze burrowing into the man's almost unnaturally composed expression.

"I am," the Operative answered, meeting Simon's hard look without faltering. Simon slipped an aside glance at Dr. Harder, who nodded very faintly in confirmation.

"Then there is one more thing you can do. We have information that can bring down the Academy. You obviously still have connections in the government. So we need you to tell us who we can trust to put a stop to what the Alliance is doing. Do you know anyone?"

"Yes," the Operative's reply was simple.

"Who?" demanded Mal. The man gave them a name. "You sure he'll help?" the captain queried after hearing it.

"He is both someone with a measure of influence in the government, and a man of honor, a combination which is exceedingly rare. I think," the Operative said to Mal with nearly a smile, "you will find he is a man after your own heart, Captain." Then he turned serious again. "I have passed information to him before, and he has used it to pursue the right course rather than his own self-interest. I cannot guarantee that he will believe you or take up your cause, but I think he is the best chance you have to bring this to an end." He glanced around at the faces before him once more. "Is that what you wish to know?" Simon tossed another look at the Harders, who nodded in agreement.

"Yes," the younger doctor clipped the word. "You can consider your debt repaid now," he added, not hiding his disgust for the man. The Operative nodded in acceptance, and Simon turned heel and marched out of the room. Mal watched him, letting the silence drag on tensely for a while after he was gone. Then he turned deliberately to the Operative, his eyes frigid and his tone even more so.

"We're even now. You don't owe us and we don't owe you. You come anywhere near us ever again and I'll shuffle you off without a second thought." His face still stony, he bent down and unlocked the cuffs. The Operative rubbed his wrists as they fell away. "Zoe, Jayne," Mal called. Both crew members came to attention and stepped inside. The Operative rose from his seat.

"As I said, Captain, I never doubted your word. I hope I've never given you reason to doubt mine."

"Get the hell off my boat," Mal said without any trace of feeling. The man respectfully inclined his head toward each of Dr. Harder, Anna, and Mal. Then with his guards in close formation around him, he left the room without a further word.


Soong Chu-yu hobbled on crutches down the central aisle through the high-ceilinged chamber which was abuzz with voices and energy. He took no notice of any of it. The sour expression dragging down his lips ensured that anyone who cared to look would know how much he detested being here. Dropping into one of the spongy leather seats behind the table at the head of the aisle, he cursed Jansen Locherbie as he tried to elevate his aching foot on one of the other chairs. Once he achieved a position that left him in only mild discomfort rather than outright pain, he slouched in his seat and stewed on his situation. Although he had been able to forestall it for some time so far, this day was inevitable in coming. All along he had considered the Miranda Committee to be nothing but a show for Locherbie to flex his political muscle, a way for the man to artificially build up his importance and reputation. Given his position, Chu-yu knew he would eventually have to indulge in the man's posturing, as had everyone else who the committee had called to testify. It was going to be a frustrating and annoying experience even under the best of circumstances. But the past few days had seen said circumstances unexpectedly deteriorate in a way he never could have foreseen. Just when it seemed like all of the loose ends had finally been tied up with River Tam, the unimaginable had happened. No one could explain to him how some completely unknown person or persons had broken into the Academy, wiped out more than half of its security force, and then escaped with the girl. Now, after that brazen assault, the facility was in shambles, River was gone again, and there was utterly no trace of who had done it. Whoever it was had been extremely well-armed and well prepared. So well prepared, in fact, that Chu-yu was convinced at this point that it had to be an internal breach. No one but an insider could have known so precisely how to cut the power and disable the security systems, as well as take down all of those guards. Unfortunately, without any feeds to record what happened, the culprits were phantoms, gone into the ether. Since then, he had put every resource at his disposal to work scouring the Academy's employee files, researching SIA reports and military security bulletins, and chasing down even the most ephemeral of leads, but nothing substantial had turned up as of yet. Needless to say, he was not happy. So, having to stand as a witness in Locherbie's pointless charade of an investigation was far beyond the last thing he wanted to do right now. In a last-ditch effort he had played the only excuse he had to put his appearance off further- his injured foot. But while making some accommodation for his condition would be the response of any reasonable committee chair, Locherbie was not one out of which to expect reason. He had refused the request, the arrogant pi gu, and had demanded that Chu-yu show up or face charges of contempt before Parliament. Not wanting to deal with the mess that would be on top of everything else, he had no choice but to be here.

Swinging his irritated gaze around the room, he noticed a flurry of activity in one corner. Peering closer, he saw that the commotion was caused by a gaggle of newsfeed personnel hurrying to set up their equipment. He snorted aloud. With his supposed penchant for transparency, Locherbie had insisted on keeping his committee hearings open to the public and the media, but Chu-yu knew that it was just another part of the show, especially today. The feeds could not resist an opportunity to capture two bitter political rivals sparring, and Jansen was using the hype to cozy up to his base. No doubt the Independent-sympathizing pirate networks on the Border would spin this encounter as the true-hearted maverick standing up to the corrupt oligarchy of the Core, further enhancing the Boros carpetbagger's populist appeal. It was all about the melodrama.

Chu-yu's already vexed nerves were only further aggravated as the clocked dragged on past the hour and the hearing did not begin. Of all the committee members, Locherbie himself was the only one absent. It was unusual for a man who was so ascetic in his ways to be even a few minutes late, let alone nearly half an hour, but Chu-yu chalked it up to more spotlight-seeking by the representative. By now he was veritably squirming in his chair. The pain of the multiple fractures in his foot was only becoming more intense as he was forced to wait, and he was seriously considering getting up and leaving, to hell with the threat of contempt. The other members of the committee sitting on the dais at the head of the room also appeared to be getting antsy, and Chu-yu had some faint hope that they might move to postpone the proceedings altogether. That hope was dashed, though, when the door behind the dais swung open and Jansen hurried in. Even in haste he carried his chiseled frame with pride, and Chu-yu could not help but sneer at his overblown sense of self-importance as he took the chairman's seat in the center behind the plaque bore his name and title. Once seated, Locherbie lifted a gavel and pounded it twice, signaling for silence in the room.

"I call this hearing of the special investigative committee regarding the communication known as the Miranda wave to order. Would the secretary please call the roll? Committee members, answer if you are present." Chu-yu shifted impatiently in his chair, flustered by the inescapable procedural doldrums that were only serving to drag out the barely tolerable tension he felt. "Please note that all committee members are present today," Locherbie announced at the conclusion the roll call. "Now, would the witness please stand and identify himself for the record."

"Soong Chu-yu, Representative in Parliament for Sihnon and chair of the Military and Security Oversight Committee," Chu-yu remained seated as he spoke. "If I may beg the pardon of the honorable members of the committee, but as you can see it is difficult for me to be on my feet at the moment," he added in as simpering a tone as he could muster without breaking protocol. He reserved a glare at the end of it for the chairman. If he was going to have to endure this torture, he was damn sure going to make it as unpleasant as possible for Jansen as well. However, the representative from Boros simply acknowledged the situation without comment and moved on. Of everything so far, that bothered Chu-yu the most.

"Would you please raise your right hand and prepare to take the oath," Locherbie instructed. Chu-yu complied and repeated the words that bound him to tell the truth under penalty of perjury. "Thank you," Locherbie said when that was concluded. "Now, I want to apologize to everyone for my lateness," he addressed the entire chamber. "Normally I don't accept excuses for bein' tardy from anyone, least of all myself. However, I had to attend to an extremely important matter related to this hearing, and it took longer than I expected. So, let's not waste any more time," he segued right into business without even pausing to make a show of sincerity for his apology. "Representative Chu-yu, are you ready to give your testimony?"

"By your pleasure," Chu-yu shot back acidly. He could see the Jansen's shoulders hunch slightly this time as the burly man bristled at his tone, but his famous temper held. Looking down at some electrofilm sheets in front of him, he launched into his questions.

"First, would you please explain what the purpose is of the Military and Security Oversight Committee for those who aren't familiar with it?" Chu-yu leaned into the microphone, purposefully amplifying his voice more than Locherbie's as he answered.

"The committee exercises a democratic check on the authority of the military and security apparatus of the government," he explained. "Its members are nominated by the Chair of Parliament and confirmed by a vote of the entire body."

"And you review various military programs and operations conducted by the government, is that right?" Locherbie continued.

"Yes," Chu-yu kept his answer terse.

"What types of reviews does the committee undertake?" Jansen wanted to know next. Chu-yu had to hold back a sigh of exasperation before he leaned into the microphone again to respond.

"The committee examines programs and proposals to determine their feasibility and strategic value. We also look at costs and funding for such programs."

"And this power of review extends to both the military and the Security Intelligence Agency?" Chu-yu confirmed that supposition with a nod and another clipped affirmative. "Does the committee have the power to authorize a military or security operation?" Locherbie moved on.

"Of course not," Chu-yu loaded as much condescension into the phrase as he could, irritated that the man would ask such an asinine question. "It strictly provides civilian oversight and accountability to the citizens of the Alliance. It can make recommendations, but the High Command and the Chair of Parliament make the decisions on any military action, and Parliament votes on funding as with any other appropriations." He answered as if he was speaking to a group of primary school children rather than fellow politicians. This was basic civics, and if they did not know that much then they deserved to be treated like dunces.

"But you are able to conduct investigations into military operations?" Jansen pressed.

"Correct," Chu-yu flicked the word like a blade from his tongue, anticipating what was to come next.

"So why didn't your committee conduct its own investigation into the Miranda wave?" Locherbie's question carried a clear note of accusation in it.

"Because it wasn't necessary. Given the circumstances, the military's response was in proper accordance with all rules of engagement in this situation. Wasting time on an investigation would detract from more important priorities," Chu-yu returned the accusatory tone with a harsh glare.

"If I may, Mr. Chairman?" one of the other committee members asked permission to speak. Jansen acknowledged him. "Representative, how did you know that the wave was not worth investigating?" the man asked Chu-yu.

"Because it was obviously a hoax," Chu-yu shot back.

"Do you have evidence to prove that?"

"I have zero evidence that proves it's true," countered Chu-yu.

"Can you provide us with what you do know?"

"No," Chu-yu stated firmly.

"Why not, Representative?" Locherbie rejoined pointedly.

"Because it is classified," Chu-yu reserved an almost taunting look for Jansen. "This committee is not authorized to be privy to it."

"And you are?" the committee member who had spoken previously inquired.

"Yes," Chu-yu tried to keep the disdain from infiltrating his tone too much, but it was difficult. "As chairman of my committee, I have level S-3 clearance which gives me access to all classified information on par with that of the Chair of Parliament and the top commanders of the military. All members of the committee are required to have at least S-1 clearance level to even be nominated to sit on it."

"So you reviewed this classified information and decided for the committee that it wasn't worth their time?" Jansen surmised.

"As is my purview," Chu-yu asserted. "Just as it's your purview, Mr. Chairman, to direct this committee's proceedings," he scoffed at Locherbie's insinuation.

"It seems to me that if only one person has the authority to decided what is and isn't an important issue to address, that's more like a dictatorship than a committee," another committee member interjected. Chu-yu was beginning to rankle at their presumption now. These politicians thought they were so smart, pecking away at him, but they were like ants nibbling on his toes.

"I'm not the only one with that level of clearance, Representative," he addressed the woman who had spoken with crisp syllables, "but I am the chair. And if the committee felt it was important enough to take up the issue over my considered judgment, they could easily have voted to override me. But considering they didn't, I think that speaks for itself as to how much evidence there was for such foolish nonsense as was contained in that wave."

"So, with all your access to classified information, you say there was no government program designed to pacify the citizens of Miranda by covertly drugging them en masse, leading to their deaths?" Locherbie specified.

"No, there wasn't," Chu-yu confirmed.

"You'll stand by that?"

"Absolutely," he declaimed. He wanted to add a choice descriptor or two for Locherbie at the end of his reply, but he restrained himself. He certainly disliked the man with fervor, but he was not going to be goaded into embarrassing himself, either. Taking a few breaths to calm his rising ire, he watched Locherbie scrutinize him with his fearsome glare, but he did not flinch. Jansen was running out of strings to pull on now, and he knew it. So much for his reputation, Chu-yu's mental expression brimmed with a grin of satisfaction. It was almost disappointing that it had been so easy to outmaneuver Locherbie.

"What about Project Oracle?"

"What?" was all Chu-yu could blurt out after a few seconds of confusion that nearly had him gaping like a fish out of water. His sense of triumph summarily evaporated as he tried to figure out if he had even heard the question correctly.

"Project Oracle. Do you know what it is?" Locherbie repeated. A few more awkward seconds passed in which Chu-yu felt like his chair was suddenly on unsolid ground. How in the hell had Jansen heard of that? Blindsided by the question, he struggled to come up with some nominal response that would not give anything away, but all he could manage was a pathetic request for clarity.

"I'm not sure what you're asking."

"I'm askin' you if you've ever heard of a government program called Project Oracle. Seems like I was pretty clear," Locherbie challenged. Chu-yu collected some of his upended composure and tried to deflect and redirect Jansen's line of questioning.

"I don't see what this has to do with Miranda."

"It's apparently one o' them classified programs that I ain't allowed to know about, but that you with your special security clearance might be aware of. So I'll ask again, do you know what Project Oracle is?" Chu-yu's mind was racing now even as it felt like his heart was about to grind to a stop. Locherbie knew something about Project Oracle. That alone could be compromising enough, but this was a public forum. Jansen absolutely could not be allowed to reveal that knowledge here. If he did, the consequences would be extremely detrimental for everyone, but most of all for Chu-yu himself. He quickly came to the conclusion that he was going to have to think fast to take control of this hearing and stop that outcome at all costs. Anything less would be unacceptable.

"I can't comment on that," Chu-yu hardened his tone and his expression with his reply, preparing himself for a battle of wills. As expected, Jansen did not back down.

"So, I take it that means that you acknowledge that Project Oracle exists and you can't say anythin' about it, is that about right?"

"As I said before, I can't comment on classified information," Chu-yu repeated.

"Of course not," Locherbie's voice was full of sarcasm.

"This hearing is getting off track. I think we should return to the topic at hand," Chu-yu gritted, making a supreme effort to pitch his words as neutrally as possible.

"I agree. What does this Project Oracle have to do with the Miranda wave, Jansen?" one of the other committee members posited.

"It has to do with the fact that if I learn that there's one secret government program out there doin' things that I find, quite frankly, disturbing and disgusting, then I have to wonder how many other things there are that I don't know about. D'you see what I'm sayin'? For example, it turns out, by some coincidence, that River Tam was a participant in Project Oracle." Locherbie announced. Jansen's fellow committee members on the dais turned to each other in surprise.

"Chairman…" Chu-yu started ominously.

"Although I'd hardly describe her role as 'participant.' Somethin' like 'victim' seems more appropriate to me."

"What are you talking about, Locherbie?" someone else on the committee wanted to know.

"The other day I received a wave that contained a file for somethin' called Project Oracle. I can only say that when I looked through it, I was astounded by what I saw."

"Chairman Locherbie, I will warn you that to disclose classified information in a public hearing such as this is a crime," Chu-yu did not bother to veil his threat. He had to shut this down now.

"I ain't never been so ashamed to be a part of the Alliance as I was when I went through that file," Locherbie continued with hardly a break. "Hell, I was almost ashamed to be a part of the human race."

"If you say anything more, I will have the SIA come in here and arrest you for unauthorized disclosure of security-sensitive information!" Chu-yu interjected again.

"I didn't ask you a question, so pipe down!" Locherbie shouted back, not letting the interruption go this time. He fixed his intense gaze on the witness table and went on very deliberately. "I think it's pretty clear that you don't want this information known, Soong, because you knew about it all along and you know what'd happen if it got out. And if that's how it is, it gives me some serious doubts as to how honest you've been about Miranda." Chu-yu's glower would have incinerated Locherbie if it had the power to. However, he did not say anything as he knew he was balancing on the precipice. What Jansen had said was already damaging enough. He did not want to provoke the man into revealing more. His best chance now was that Locherbie might try to turn what he knew to his personal advantage and hold back some of the information to give himself leverage to bargain with. Prior to this, Chu-yu would have rather swallowed shards of glass than be subject to blackmail by Locherbie, but at this point it was his best hope to salvage whatever he could.

But it only continued to deteriorate for him as Jansen tapped his console and all the screens in the room sparked to life. A vid started playing on the console at Chu-yu's table, as well as on all of the committee members' screens, and on the two giant holographic projectors on the wall behind the dais. It was one that Chu-yu knew all too well. It was an excerpt documenting a particular test performed on River in her first year at the Acadmey, one where she was strapped to a chair and with needle electrodes stuck all around her temples. Blood oozed from the pinpricks where they protruded. She was restrained under the glare of a powerful light that illuminated little else, and she was shaking enough to rattle her seat. Beside her, a robotic probe with something red and otherwise unidentifiable at its tip extended inexorably towards her face. No one could mistake the unmitigated terror in every fiber of her being. Her eyes were wide and white as they darted between the encroaching probe and the camera, seeming to plead with the onlookers beyond in panicked desperation. The probe halted millimeters from her left temple, almost touching her eyelashes. For a second or two, nothing happened. Then, while nothing seemingly continued to happen to everyone watching, her blood-curdling scream nearly ripped apart the speakers in the chamber. Meanwhile, shadowy figures in surgical masks and scrubs occasionally moved in and out of the frame, but did nothing to comfort the girl or stop the pain that was assuredly wracking her. Many people in the audience looked away as her screams continued unabated, including Chu-yu. But he was not thinking about River or the video at all. Running through his mind over and over was one thought: this could not be happening! Before long the surreal nature of the situation and River's unending wails made him feel like he was descending into insanity as well.

When the clip ended, the silence in the chamber felt monstrous. A few tense voices murmured in disbelief and disturbed confusion before they descended into quiet uncertainty.

"Where did you get this from?" one of the committee members finally spoke up, the voice unsteady with shock.

"It was anonymous," Jansen replied. Watching him almost numbly, Chu-yu saw a flicker in his expression. It was just a faint wrinkling of his brow, and maybe a hesitant twitch of his eyes, but Chu-yu identified it immediately. If there was one area where he had the advantage over the other representative, it was in secrecy, and right away he could see that Locherbie was lying. That was all he needed to draw an immediate conclusion as to the source of this leak, and he seized on it without mercy.

"You got this information from Malcolm Reynolds!" he blasted the accusation into the chamber. "You've been in contact with those scoundrels, and they gave this to you!" Now it was Locherbie's turn to attempt to ignite his foe with a glare, but that did not stop Chu-yu's tirade. "This is all a lie! It's a fabrication concocted by known criminals. These are the same terrorists that were responsible for the anti-Alliance propaganda that was the Miranda wave, and now they're trying to further destroy our society with this fear campaign!"

"Order!" Locherbie pounded his gavel with authority, rising halfway to his feet as he did so.

"Are you sure you don't know where it came from?" someone on the dais asked. Chu-yu was momentarily heartened to hear one of Jansen's own committee members taking up his suspicions.

"I can't say exactly," Jansen explained after a brief hesitance, "'cause the wave code was a counterfeit. But regardless of the source, there's no doubt in my mind that this is authentic. So far the two analysts who've examined it have independently verified that the official security markers embedded in the data are genuine. Then there's this." He switched the screens to another vid, this one showing yet another scene familiar to Chu-yu. It was the security feed from the moments before River's escape from the Academy, when Simon Tam, masquerading as an Alliance officer, was speaking to Dr. Matthias.

"Key members of Parliament have personally observed this subject," the late doctor's voice rang out in the chamber, echoing in the vast hollow that was now Chu-yu's stomach. "I was told the Alliance's support for the project was unanimous." Locherbie stopped the clip.

"Key members of Parliament. Unanimous support," he repeated. "This wasn't no rogue project that the military took upon all by themselves. Somehow, this got Parliamentary approval." He brought the full intensity of his smoldering disgust to bear on the witness table.

"This is preposterous!" Chu-yu hollered, trying to refute the implication with anything and everything he could think of. He focused his fury on Locherbie. "You showed up to your own hearing nearly thirty minutes late, you disrespected me and my position during my testimony, and now you're charging that I knew about this based on some manufactured evidence provided by known enemies of the government? This is a circus, not a committee!"

"Order!" Locherbie hammered his gavel repeatedly. "Be quiet!"

"I won't stand for this kind of treatment!" Chu-yu continued to rant, heedless of Locherbie's attempt to silence him. "Rest assured I will be filing a motion with the ethics committee to censure you for this unprofessional behavior, and I will not participate in any of this committee's hearings now or in the future until your chairmanship is revoked!"

"You will maintain order, Representative!" Locherbie slammed on his gavel again. "You are under oath and do not have permission to leave this chamber!"

"This is a farce!" Chu-yu screamed back. "I will not be party to a hearing that allows its chairman to stand up and spout these mendacities in what is supposed to be an investigation into the truth!" He shoved his chair back violently and lurched to his feet with the aid of his crutches.

"Sit down or I will have you bound to your chair and gagged!" Locherbie threatened. "While you're here, you're subject to my authority!"

"Your authority disappeared when you showed yourself to be in league with the traitors who fed you these lies!" Chu-yu accused. "I'm leaving!"

"Like hell you are!" Locherbie shouted, his eyes flashing with ferocity. "Sergeant-at-arms, escort Representative Chu-yu back to the witness table or take him into custody for contempt of a Parliamentary hearing!" Snapping to attention, the Sergeant-at-arms hurried forward from the side of the room and met Chu-yu as he swung on his crutches up the middle of the aisle.

"Get out of my way!" Chu-yu spat at the officer.

"Representative, would you please return to your seat," the Sergeant said, refusing to budge.

"I absolutely will not, and I'll be sure to have you demoted for taking orders from this charlatan!"

"Sir, if you don't return to your seat, then I'm afraid I'm going to have to place you under arrest." The Sergeant reached for Chu-yu's arm, but the representative jerked back.

"Get your hands off of me! If you're going to arrest anybody, you should be arresting him!" Chu-yu jabbed a crutch at Locherbie behind him.

"Sir, I'm sorry, but…" the Sergeant tried again to grasp Chu-yu's arm, but the hobbled politician swung at him with his crutch. The officer managed to deflect the blow and get a grip on Chu-yu's other wrist, but the move unbalanced Chu-yu and both of them fell to the ground, struggling with each other. The news feeds zoomed in on the chaos as the astonished and bewildered audience watched.

"Security!" Locherbie bellowed from the dais, and moments later three Parliamentary Guards rushed into the chamber. It took all three of them plus the Sergeant-at-arms to finally restrain the flailing parliamentarian. They righted him on his feet and had to drag him up the aisle, with two guards on each arm.

"This is treason! Treason!" Chu-yu kept screaming as he was hauled away. Even after he was escorted through the double doors and out of the chamber, his shouts rang long and loud down the corridors of the building.

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