The holding cell was a small, windowless room. Three walls and a transparent forcefield, one of twenty just like it on the Alliance transport ship. A low bench along one wall, a toilet and sink in the corner opposite. Big enough to hold fifteen people with a bit of space left over – up to twenty-five if they planned to get real friendly. Including herself, Zoe knew they numbered twelve.
She knew without looking, because she’d counted five times already.
There were only so many times a person could count to twelve as a way to kill time. Not a very high number, twelve. Not very far to go to get there. You kept at it, you started over so often that soon the numbers just all started to run together. Lost their meaning, their individual numerical status. Pretty soon all those numbers were just empty words in a repeating list of words, words that had nothing to do with the men they represented.
And still the one man you were killing time waiting for hadn’t been brought back.
The others were sprawled around the space, mostly sitting with their backs against the white walls. Some sleeping, some unconscious. The few that weren’t either stared blankly at the floor or walls or into the middle ground of nothingness to watch some show taking place inside their exhausted heads. One or two watched the empty area where the field lay, waiting to see what was coming next. Waiting to see if a guard would show up and say it was their turn to be dragged out into whatever awaited them outside this little room.
To wherever it was that they’d taken him.
In the Valley they’d had no choice but to obey orders and lay down their weapons. He’d been the one to give the final word, in the end. Once those ships had risen dark and deadly above them, once it was clear that the only other way to end things was in their death. They’d been holding the ground until their angels came, but those so-called angels had turned their backs and left them to die. Up until that moment, she believed him when he’d said they could make it through. She’d had to, in order to keep going. She had no words to describe the feeling that settled in her when it came clear that mere belief wouldn’t be enough to save them.
She suspected he didn’t either. She’d watched his eyes when he gave the order for surrender. Fractured pieces inside a bleeding shell of a body, still walking and breathing but inside nothing but numb. Numb that led them into Alliance custody, barely feeling the cold metal of the handcuffs slapped on their wrists. Numb that buzzed in their ears, making it hard to keep their heads up but a whole lot easier to endure their preliminary processing once on board the transport. Their captors took obvious enjoyment in making the whole thing as debasing as they could, but the numb gave them a place to escape to.
Trouble with numb, though - a person didn’t always make it back out.
Stripped and searched, fingerprinted and photographed, before being tossed their ragged clothes and shoved into the cells. All there was time for out here, with so many to round up. Not nearly as many coming out as went in, of course, but these ships were strictly fetch and carry. Seemed they weren’t going to be debriefed until they reached the Core, if even then. If the treatment they were getting now was any indication, Zoe didn’t figure she’d be much surprised if the Alliance just decided to dump the whole lot of them on a barren moon somewhere to die for their supposed crimes.
Might end up being a lot more pleasant than what they were in for, anyway.
Not that the mighty Alliance would do something so savage, of course. The shining bastion of civilization that they claimed to be would never be so barbarous. Didn’t stop the countless little cruelties, though. Like a questing hand straying where it shouldn’t to prod and probe in the rough name of routine inspection. Like refusing to treat their wounded without even bothering to construct a flimsy excuse as to why. Like tossing rations for six into a room holding twelve, in the unspoken hopes of getting them to turn on one another in their hunger. Like the endless taunts and insults thrown at them by guards wielding laser pistols, so they might find a reason to kill a prisoner or two if any of them happened to snap.
Sometimes, after all, numb only stretched so far.
Zoe pulled her coat more tightly around herself, refusing to let her eyes stray to the gap where the fourth wall should be. There wasn’t a part of her that didn’t ache or sting or throb, a tired beyond tired that she’d carried with her for so many endless days. It had gotten so she’d stopped noticing it, back in Serenity when any kind of distraction was just one step more in the direction of certain death. When things had first started getting bad – but before they’d degenerated into the all-out hell they became – she remembered stolen moments spent fantasizing about soft beds and steaming hot baths. A thick bar of soap and clear water and time enough to scrub her skin clean. Fresh clothes without holes or tears, a shirt not caked with so much dirt and blood and sweat that you couldn’t even guess as to its original color. Pants that fit as they were meant to, instead of shredded fabric held up only by a cracked belt because near-starvation had pulled too much of the weight off your bones for them to stay on alone.
And then came the point when there were no moments to be spent day-dreaming, when such dreams only served to remind you how far away you’d gotten from where you once were. A time or two when they’d tried to use them as a sort of game to raise spirits – a bit of “what will you do first when we get home” – before it became apparent that so many of them weren’t getting home. After that, if you still managed to hold on to such grandiose fancies as a bath and a bed, you did best to keep them to yourself. Maybe some of them did; maybe it helped them to get through.
Zoe, for her part, found it hurt less just to learn to ignore the tired and the unidentifiable pieces of gore that always seemed to find their way into her hair and under her nails.
The Alliance’s purported civility hadn’t extended to letting them clean up either. No doubt when they reached their destination they’d be stripped again and hosed down like dogs before being issued some sort of prison uniform. If prison was indeed where they were headed. She didn’t guess they’d bother if it was to be execution instead. At least their collective stink had the solitary benefit of keeping the guards mostly at a distance. Numb or no, there’d been a tiny flare of satisfaction at seeing all those smug soldiers trying their damnedest to only breathe through their mouths.
A nagging something at the edge of her awareness abruptly resolved itself into the sound of muffled sobs. She blinked, unable to muster any emotion over the drained detachment as her eyes drifted past the figures slumped on the floor with her. A boy, barely old enough to shave, his head down on knees pulled up against his heaving chest. Rogers, one of the continual fresh-faced volunteers they’d picked up somewhere along the way. They were so eager to sign up, filled with a hunger for vengeance against the force that had taken their homes, their livelihoods, their freedoms while spouting false promises of a better life for all under their rule. Or maybe he’d been one of those who’d been expecting a grand adventure, or a glorious fight on the side of justice. Didn’t really matter here, she supposed. Now he was just one of the few who’d actually lived long enough to get this far.
The noise continued, rising and falling over the low moans and groaning breaths. It itched at her, chipped away at her from the inside. Snuck into her ears and crawled around inside her head, scratching at the surface layer of numb that was her only barrier between possibly losing herself to helpless sobs of her own. She couldn’t let herself go there, couldn’t run the risk of finding out what lay in that perilous direction. Her short, jagged fingernails dug into her dry palms inside her chapped and bleeding fists. Any second now she was going to yell at him or worse – maybe jump up, cross the room, and smack him hard enough to shut him up. She could feel it bubbling up inside her, pushing at her coveted indifference...
And then the forcefield fell, just long enough for two armored soldiers to push their thirteenth member through.
Mal staggered, managed to keep on his feet. He stood unsteadily, three paces in from the field, both arms wrapped around his middle and swaying dangerously. Zoe jumped up, reaching him just as his knees buckled. His sudden dead weight almost took them both down, but Ashton – a lieutenant j.g. who’d always been a man to keep his head in the midst of anything – came to her aid quick enough to keep them off the floor. They each pulled an arm over their shoulders, supporting him the short distance to the empty bench.
He hissed in pain through clenched teeth when they set him down, but resisted their efforts to get him to lie on his back on the meager padding. Soon as they let him go his arms went back around his body, though whether to brace busted ribs or for more psychological protection Zoe couldn’t be sure. His left eye was blackened, swollen nearly completely shut; the other one in a squint as if the harsh light reflecting off the white walls was more than he could take. His bottom lip was split and puffy, but she couldn’t really say for certain that it hadn’t been that way before. She was fairly positive she hadn’t seen the dried trickle of blood working its way down from the corner of his mouth, though.
Zoe sat beside him, her mind running through a thousand pointless and hollow things that might be said at a time such as this. He looked back at her, dully watching through the slit of his one good eye, and she wondered what if anything it was that he wanted to hear. So many ineffectual words.
Finally she sighed. “Looks like somebody forgot to tell these boys that torture ain’t civilized.”
He coughed, wincing. When he spoke, his voice sounded like something heavy being dragged over gravel. She noticed he moved his jaw as little as possible. “Callin’ it ‘interrogation’ round these parts.”
“Funny that.” Her tone was anything but amused. She watched as he tried to find a comfortable position, finally settling on leaning back against the wall, arms still tight around himself. She waited, expecting him to speak again even as he rested his head on the smooth expanse of white behind him and closed his eyes best he could. When after several moments he still said nothing, she took the initiative, her voice lowered in case any of the guards lingering outside were bothering to listen in.
“What’s the plan, Sarge?”
He didn’t even look at her. “Ain’t no plan.”
She shared a look with Ashton, standing in front of the bench on Mal’s other side. “Sir?”
“Ain’t. No. Plan.”
She swallowed, cold dread sliding down her throat to land hard at the bottom of her empty stomach. Rogers was still crying, over there across the room. “But, sir...”
With an angry exhalation, he sat upright. He squinted at her, his voice tight. ”Ting hao, ’cause I’ll say it once more. There ain’t no plan. It’s over, dong ma? Done. We lost an’ that’s that. So you can jus’ stop callin’ me that, ‘cause I sure as hell ain’t in charge. They left us an’ we lost an’...” Suddenly he was on his feet. ”Ta ma duh! Will someone shut him up!”
A thick hush filled the room, broken only by Rogers’s choked gasps as he tried to stop the sobs. With a strangled growl, Mal spun around, slamming a fist into the wall. Zoe, standing now, fought to keep her expression impassive. She didn’t want the same shock she saw on the faces around her to play across her own. So she fell into her accustomed role as the silent second.
Except she couldn’t seem to figure out what to do with her hands.
She finally solved the problem by clasping them together behind her back. Mal, his hand cradled against his chest, rested his forehead against the wall he’d just tried to put his fist through. Nobody moved for a long time, unsure of what to do. Unsure if there was anything to do.
The first action to finally break the stillness was Mal’s. Reaching up with his uninjured hand, he took hold of the cross he’d worn around his neck from the first moment Zoe had met him. She flinched as he snapped the chain with a sharp yank. She had to force herself not to flinch again when he handed it to her without looking.
“Here. Give the boy this.” His voice was low now, a toneless thing without contour. “Maybe he can get some gorram use out of it.”
Zoe said nothing, watching him move with painful slowness to sit in the corner, as close to folded in on himself as he could get while favoring his numerous injuries. Her eyes fell to the object in her palm, a simple t-shape on a silver chain. A symbol for an entire set of symbols. She realized then that despite what she’d thought, a small part of her had still been holding fast to some last shards of hope.
She closed her fist around it, feeling the edges bite into her skin. Tried to find her way back to numb.