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Episode 9. I don't know how well I edited it, because I've been busy. So forgive the typos, I'll go through and try to fix them later.

Also, it was almost 30 pages, so I think this is officially the longest fic I've ever done.

Please read and comment!

And remember, I'm not Joss Whedon. That would take an operation that, frankly, I don't have the money for.




Hale

After the attack…

The aftermath of the battle was what all battles usually are. Dust from pounding, urgent feet kicked up into the air. The smell of acrid smoke and sulfur. Bloody bodies wafting a stench into the hot air. However, we had won. That was what counted. Everything had been resting on our succession, and we had decided this. The odds had been beaten.

I pulled my blade out of Soldier’s throat and wiped the blood off along the cuff of my pants. I hung my head a bit from the choked sound behind me, then stood up and turned around. Some people were crying. Others were dragging the dead into a pile. I saw Vanya trying to sheppard the survivors out of the compound. Any survivors of the guard had already left in their own ship, and they weren’t going to be back for their wounded or killed.

And Fin.

She was on the ground holding the wounded and dying fighter of our crew. Her mouth was open wide in shock. A sob was caught in her throat. Blood pooled the ground around them as she buried her face into the woman’s hair.

“Please don’t die…” she whispered hoarsely. “Please. Please don’t die. Don’t die. Don’t die.”

But it was too late. The woman was already dead.

“No! No!”

The world stood still. We all crowded around, the crew and I. Affinity looked up at us, her eyes red rimmed, her features in agony. I heard soft cries around me, muffled whimpers, and I wondered where it came from. But I could not stop looking at Affinity. She lifted her blood soaked hands and grabbed her own hair, streaking the dark tresses with the metallic liquid. The makings of a rage contorted her face.

“Get Sebastian.”

“Fin. There is nothing that he can-”

“GET SEBASTIAN NOW! We came all this way! We sacrificed everything! We…we can’t…you can’t just SIT THERE AND WATCH HER DIE-”

“Captain-”

“Affinity, she is already gone-”

“Don’t you say that! I do not want to hear that!”

“But-”

“If you don’t get help,” she drew her hogleg from beside her hip. “Then I will make you get help.”

“Affinity. Come on.”

“GET. HELP. NOW.”

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Katherine

Before the attack…

I knew that death was imminent. And so did the people around me. Our plans were risky, but so was staying on this rock. At this point, as Jacy had so eloquently put numerous times, we had a choice. Die sitting or die fighting. And the majority there agreed with her.

I was not so sure if I did anymore. I wanted to leave, but I wanted to leave alive. I was not looking forward to dying. Who would?

We had been passing each other messages in secret for days now. Pretending to work, or to tend the needy, or even while eating. Snatches of conversation could be heard, if anyone was listening for it. Whispers and prods, everything said quickly as to avoid suspicion.

“We will wait until nightfall. That is our best shot. Under the cover of darkness, we just might make it.”

“Most of the men don’t seem to know what they’re doing. They aren’t militarily trained. Anyone who has been in the service can spot certain mannerisms, and they don’t have them.”

“They wont be able to shoot clearly. We douse the lights, we take cover. Who has been memorizing this area for months now? We have! They don’t stand a chance. Its all a matter of covertness.”

“There is a ship right beyond those gates. What if the next time it leaves, it doesn’t come back?”

River walked amongst us all like a floating pixy. She did not say much of anything, but when she did it was all riddles. And sometimes she looked really sad, even stricken, by thoughts going in her head. But when I asked her about them, she would not tell me. She would only shake her head and walk away. It worried me, being as I knew for a fact that she was a clairvoyant.

“But…Jei-Jei always acts strange.” Ghost countered me that day when I confided in her. “I’ve told you. She isn’t usually clear about what she knows.”

“Trust me, if River looks worried then we should be worried. I know things about her. I fly with her nephew.”

“What could possibly go wronger?” Ghost slammed her hammer against a crooked nail, narrowly missing her fingers. “We are already on this sandstorm of a moon, narrowly avoiding heat stroke, and risking the possibility of being harassed by armed men without a conscience.”

“We are on the brink of an uprising…” I whispered to her in a low voice. “A ton could go…wronger. Being fatally injured, for one. Or being left here. Neither is something I want to face.”

“Have you completely given up on your crew then?”

I sighed. “I do not see many options where they’re concerned. Not right now anyway. Its like Jacy said. They should have been here by now.”

“I suppose.” Ghost hung her head before resuming her work. “Say, Kat? What is it that we’re going to do, exactly?”

“We are not going to discuss it any further until sunset.”

“So, nobody knows what they are doing?”

“This cannot wait any longer, Adamina. Do you understand that? We need to act now. While the iron is hot. While everyone wants to do this! There is a certain mindset you need to stay in, in order to accomplish what seems impossible. If we tarry, and people start to lose their nerve, then we’re not ever going to leave.” I sighed in a drastic way. “It is our only chance. Passing it up isn’t an option.”


That night, we all converged under the cover of darkness. Passing around food and drink, everyone was briefed on what was coming to pass. The low rumble of talk was barely heard in the echo of hard winds and impending rain, the first rain we had seen in far too long. If it hung around, the lack of visibility would be in our favor. If it didn’t, I would not be surprised.

Many of the people there were afraid. They were nothing but simple farmers and merchants, other walks of life where the Alliance had kept them happy and out of combat. Some of them didn’t have much experience with fighting, even the ones who had handled a weapon before. They hung their heads during the talk, or shivered, or scoffed at our plans.

And then there were the handful of men who were used to this life, as I was. Some were brawlers, no more sense than a scuffle or two. But a few of them were former guards, had some sort of physical training. They held the capacity to comprehend a combat situation.

My favorite of them all was a man called Bryar. He didn’t look like much aside from some dark, tousled hair and a skinny body. However, he had the hard facial features of a man who knew what he was talking about, with the exception of not looking very old.

“Look,” he said at that meeting by the fire. “It don’t matter how or why we ended up gettin’ here. We’re here now. And every one of you knows that we aint safe.” He took a break to tear into his portion of dried beef. “There ain’t no sittin’ tight before redemption day. It ain’t comin’. We need to save our own skins.”

“Exactly.” Jacy agreed. She was still battered and bruised, but sat up straighter than anyone else there. “I’ve heard the way the soldier’s talk. I had the unfortunate gift of being awake during my transport here. From what they say, we are never leaving this rock. We leave by way of bullet. Or by the sun draining every ounce of life out of us. And, from what they say keep in mind, if it weren’t us then it’d be them.”

“Wait a minute.” One of the younger girls spoke up. She couldn’t be older than fourteen. “Are you saying that some of the guards are-”

“Forced to be here. Just like us. Or from what I can gather.”

This seemed to shock everyone.

“How could they do this, if they are in the same situation as us?” Someone spoke up.

“Reverse the shoes and we’d be toeing the same line,” Bryar countered. “I’m sure there aint a-one of you who don’t wish to be on the other side of that fence. I wont lie. I wish it.”

No one said anything at this.

“It is the game of whoever is running this place,” I said, moving a stray curl to the back of my ear in frustration. “Whoever it is enjoys this type of power play. Its written all over how he, or she, is having things ran. It probably gives them a sick satisfaction to see how normal men can beat down others with nothing more than a few more muscles and a weapon at their side. Why else would they have us pay our debt on this moon and not take us to a proper trial?”

I wanted to correct myself on the “us” slip, but decided not to. Like Bryar said. It didn’t matter how or why we ended up getting here. What mattered is that we were here now, and we had to be a unit if we were going to have any chance of getting out.

“So here is what we have to do.” Now speaking was Wade, another man I respected. “We have tools. Shovels. Hoes. Drills. We need to find anything that can puncture skin. We need to gather anything that can be used as armor or shields. We need to dig hidey holes and canvass the area for good spots to take cover or give em’ the slip if we have to.”

“But first and foremost.” Interrupted River. “We need to find a place for the young ones.”

Everyone was quiet a moment, then Wade said, “I reckon we do.”

“I know a place.” Said the fourteen year old. “Near the barn. They wont want to harm the livestock. Its one of the only things worth anything, right?”

“Good thinking.” I smiled at her. She grinned sheepishly back.

“Hang on now.” I didn’t recognize the guy who was speaking now. He looked mousy. “What possible chance do we have with tools against guns?”

“Come on,” Bryar gave a small laugh. “All of the greatest upsets in history have been done small time.”

“Are you kidding me?”

“It’s a revolt.” Jacy’s cold voice was spiked with annoyance. “You take risks with revolts.”

“Haven’t we suffered enough?” Mousy attempted a speech. “As Jei-Jei pointed out: there are children here. We need to be smart at a time like this. Lets be reasonable, people. You lay your head low, you do as your told, and then one day they’ll tell us that we’ve worked off our debt and we can go back home to our families.”

“They’ve brainwashed you!” Wade couldn’t yell, the sound would carry too much, but the harsh sound was something as reminiscent to it as he could. “That is exactly what Soldier wants you to think!”

“Those who do not wish to fight are more than welcome to guard the children. Or to hide with them.” I sneered. There were a few mirthless chuckles. “But the rest of us should face reality. There is no sitting it out or lying low. There is only death here. And the longer we wait, the weaker we get, the more our fates are sealed.”

There were some grunts of approval at my words. Some looked at me in admiration. Others looked fearful.

“We should work out now who is doing what.” I was surprised that this was said by Ghost, and in the firmest voice I had ever heard her use. “That way when the sun comes up, we all know where we are going and there is no confusion.”

“A red sun rises. Lit earth. Lighting the way. Lighting the call. The scream. So much pain.” River looked tortured for a moment as she spoke.

She met my eyes and I felt a chill go down my spine from the haunted glance. I would never wish to see the things that she saw. How could anyone cope with such knowledge? To make matters worse, I wasn’t sure if she just happened to look at me, or if the pain she saw was mine.

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Vanya

Hale and I had not talked much over the past few months. And to be honest, it was how I preferred things. He and I were far too awkward around each other nowadays. However, since I was seeing the pilot, and Fin seemed to be paying attention to him again, the second in command and I were on basic speaking terms.

For now we were utilizing our strained silence to watch over the captured men in our hull. The two of us were playing cards while watching Josef and Patty. They were still tied and gagged, staring resentfully at the floor. They weren’t in such a rebellious mood since having given up the coordinates to Valgrind. Though I was sure they knew, they hadn’t a choice in the matter. Outnumbered and kidnapped. If they wanted to try to save themselves, staying alive would be the best policy. So cooperation was in order.

I laid out my winning cards for Hale to see, then sat back. “Another go?” I asked him.

Hale shook his head, sitting back as well. “I do not relish the prospect of being tapped out.”

I gave a small smile in answer and gathered up the cards, shuffling them just to have something to do. Hale rapped his knuckles on the table. The knock echoed around us. I noticed he did not look thrilled. It could be because I was on a winning streak. But I was not sure how much of my luck had been due to skill or from Hale’s lack of interest in the activity.

So I did something I hadn’t done in a long, long time. I engaged him in conversation.

“Is’t something bothering you?” I asked him gruffly.

“Nothing anyone hasn’t guessed.”

“V’at? Embellish, please.”

He surprised me with talking quickly, as if he’d been dying to since we had been in each other’s company. “Everything lies on where we are going. This…gorram moon that Niska placed my family and our crew on. I don’t like it. Its all fishy.”

“V’ell. At least ve’re not combing ze galaxy for all three of them. V’e know exactly v’here they are.”

“That doesn’t bother you?”

“No. I find it convenient.”

“Yeah. Convenient. Or some sort of trap. Hasn’t that crossed anyone’s mind?”

“No one knows that v’e know v’here they are. V’e have that advantage on our side.”

“Perhaps. But he has to be expecting some sort of rescue mission, right? He knows Mal. He knows that he’d feel honor bound to try to save Ghost. And if not Ghost, then definitely River. What if he is counting on that?”

“Does Niska know zat River is affiliated v’ith ze crew of Serenity?”

Hale paused for a moment. Then said, “Maybe not.”

“Then I do not see how this v’orries you.”

“Jitters, I guess? Nerves? I’m surprised no one else has looked at this angle. This crew isn’t the type to accept face value without some pondering.” Hale stared at Josef and Patty with a mulled expression. “I just don’t trust our luck.”

Shad walked in with a gleeful expression on his face. In his hands was some sort of wonky device, it had wires and buttons. He was whispering to it as he walked by.

“You sweet, sweet little deal you…you are going to make things sing for daddy. I cannot wait to see your work.”

“What have you there, Shad?”

Shad jumped as if he hadn’t expected to see actual people in front of him. He held his contraption closer, as if somewhere in the room there was a threat to its value.

“Just a…bomb. Hale. Nothing really.” He flushed a bit and chuckled softly.

Josef and Patty looked up at this, obviously unsettled with the thought of explosives so near them.

“I should have known. Nothing else holds your attention so well.”

“That isn’t true,” Shad countered him. “I hold a love for all munitions. But bombs are my favorite.” He finished on a whoosh of excited breath, as if he’d been unable to resist the clarification.

Shad sat next to us, playing his toy lovingly into his lap with a look of admiration. “This is an especially wonderful piece of work, though. She can go off with a verbal command. Exceptionally exquisite.”

“A verbal command?” I repeated, my eyebrows raising involuntarily. “Zat doesn’t sound like something zat v’ould v’ork in your favor.”

“Why not?” Shad was genuinely puzzled.

“What if your opponent says the word before you do?”

Shad scoffed. “That’s why you plant her somewhere that works to your advantage. And you chose a word that you are sure no one would say on pure accident.”

“So…what’s the word for this one?” Hale asked.

Shad looked up. “I haven’t picked one yet. It has to be something good though. She deserves nothing less.”

Stay in Shad’s company long enough, and you’ll realize that he humanizes objects that go boom far too often. And they’re literally almost always female.

“How many of these are you planning on setting up?”

“Of these in particular? Just this one. Of others? Lots. As Fin told me, we are most likely outnumbered. So might as well bomb the place. Get our point across fast. Maybe make enough noise to get our girls out. Then, we’re off as if we never were.”

“Good plan. Simple. Doable.” I nodded curtly. “However. V’ont it take more finesse than that?”

“I imagine it will.” Hale said. “That’s why we have these two.” He kicked a foot out at the hostages. They each flinched rather dramatically. “They’ll get our quarry warmed up for us. They get us in. Shad plants his tick tocks. Then we announce ourselves and wait for them to ambush.”

“Beautiful.” I grinned a fake grin and did one last shuffle before placing the cards alone on the table.

“Oh come on, Vanya. Where’s your sense of adventure?” Hale teased.

“Buried beneath layers of resentment from our last few failures.”

Shad gave a bark of a laugh and the contraption in his lap jostled. It made a beeping sound and we all jumped.

“Shad…”

“Oh, don’t worry. She is supposed to do that.” He smiled sheepishly and fiddled with a few buttons. “Its all under control. Aint it, darlin’?”

It wasn’t that Shad had blown anything up unintentionally as of yet. We all knew he was far too OCD to let anything go for long. He was the one who usually knew the insides and outs of these sorts of things. However he hid his affliction with a bumbling sort of personality, as if he were constantly trying to remember something that was just out of reach. A slightly unsettling trait for the ship’s ammunitions expert.

“Vanya.”

We all looked up when my name was called over the loudspeakers. I stared up at the ceiling at the phantom voice.

“Please report to the helm. It is urgent.”

I stood up and brushed the dust from the floor off my bottom. I gave the second in command and the bomb boy a sort of nod in leaving. Then I headed up the stairs and to the deck.

When I got there, it was to see Affinity, Case, and Zoe standing near the monitors. They all looked grave. I hurried over to see my older sister’s face on the screen. She looked pale and shaky. A bruise marred the soft of her left cheek, and her breathing was harried and uneven.

I did not bother to ask what the Captain had wanted. Obviously it was to tell me that my sister was in trouble. And even if it weren’t, the sight was all consuming.

“Lidiya. You look awful! Are you okay?”

“No.” Her voice trembled. Her eyes were swarmed with tears and her usually neat hair was disorderly. “We were just attacked.”

Rage clogged my throat, making my words hard to push out. Fear mingled with it, causing a turmoil of emotion to wreck havoc over me. “Attacked? By who?”

“Some gang. A tong, I think. They came in and trashed the place, knocked all of our guards unconscious and held us hostage for about two hours.”

I cursed loudly, turning away from my sister to rage.

“Are you and your family okay?” Affinity asked.

“We’re fine.”

“What did they want?” I turned back around to ask. “To steal anything? To hurt someone?”

“We are not entirely sure.” Lidiya sighed. “They held us for a long time and then just…sort of left.”

“They left?”

“They were looking for something. Or someone. After a while, with no explanations, they took off. They didn’t take any valuables. But…” She paused and then swallowed at a lump in her throat. “But Uncle Adelei is gone.”

“V’hat do you mean he’s gone?”

“What else can I mean? We cannot tell if there was a struggle or not. The entire house was in shambles. There was no blood or any sounds of a fight. So there is no telling whether he left of his own accord after he sensed danger, or if he was taken by someone.”

“And no one said anything? No hints?”

Lidiya shook her head. “Not a word.”

We were all silent for a long moment. I resisted the urge to pull at my long braid, unsure of what to do or what to say.

“How fares mammochka and papka? How is Catia?”

“We are all fine. Just confused. Our guard was completely down. We don’t understand how anyone got in.”

“V’hat, v’as everyone sleeping on the job?” I screamed.

“I don’t know.” Lidiya’s shoulders shook violently. “I don’t know anything! Okay?!”

“Lids, its okay.” Affinity spoke in a soothing voice. “As long as you’re all fine. As long as you’re now safe. I think we can all live with Niska being gone.”

“I’m not fine! Father rose security so much over the past four years. We always thought he was just paranoid, but today proved that he wasn’t! You would think all his money, all his damned prestige would be worth the full security of…security! And now that we know it isn’t, what if they come back?”

“This shouldn’t have happened.” I seethed. “Your personal guard should have gotten you out of there before anything happened. V’here is she? I v’ant to talk to her. Now, Lidiya!”

Lidiya paused and her face went slightly sullen. “I…can’t help you there. I do not know where she is.”

“You cannot be left unattended right now! That is entirely unacceptable!”

“I’m not. Father got half of the on planet alliance here.”

“You have ops at your house?” Affinity gasped. “And you risked calling us?”

“Don’t worry. They are not interested in me. They are interested in my father’s pocket. I’m surprised he let them inside at all, considering what we all know he’s been keeping secret. But I guess he considered this serious enough to involve authorities. They’re combing Niska’s room and filling out a report. I think they’ll also be spending a lot of time along the streets here. To be honest, I don’t mind it. It makes me feel a little safer.”

“Lidiya. You must-”

Never mind, sister.” Lidiya spoke softly in our home tongue. “Like I said. They’re doing father’s bidding. Me staying in my room is not out of the ordinary. And I feel they’re inclined to allow it, being that this mess is enough to drive anyone to hysterics. I’m one less person to console, or be in the way.”

“If you find out anything else, let us know immediately.” Affinity ordered. “And make sure that you know an alternate escape route from the house, just in case you need to leave fast.”

“It is all being arranged as we speak, Captain. I will send you a wave when I…am a bit more composed. I just thought you all should be aware of this. Niska is involved with Valgrind. There is no doubt about it. And if he is doing a disappearing act for a while, you should know about it. Who knows where he is, who is on his side, or what he is still capable of.”

Lidiya and I stared at each other for a beat before her screen went black. I feared for my sister. There was a ghost in her gaze, something I felt that she was concealing from us. But if it were something that we needed to know, I felt certain that we would hear it.

Still. It grieved me.

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Lidiya

As soon as the connection with Chunjing was severed, I gave into the temptation to howl in pain and slump in my chair. The tears were instantaneous. They shook me so violently that my keyboard jammed, something near my hand toppled from my desk with a crash. I sunk slowly from my seat and covered my face in my hands, letting the sobs overtake me. The pain was unbelievable. My heart actually hurt, which was something I had never felt before.

They all asked. They kept asking. Where was my guard? Why was my guard missing? Where did that bruise come from? How did you get down to the kitchen? What do you remember?

Why were you unconscious?

My answers were simple. I fainted. I fell. Someone found me, dragged me into the kitchen with the rest of my family to be held while the tong carried out their shadowed orders. I did not tell them the one thing that broke my heart, severed my peace of mind and left me useless and crying on the floor.

My love. My only love. She had betrayed me. I was blinded to all but my panic and my depression. I would lay there crying until fatigue took over me, and I went to my bed to sleep.

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Affinity

“Let Mal know about this change of position.” I instructed Case. He, of course, got right on it. Which left me to meander in my thoughts. I walked away from the helm, no longer feeling the need to monitor our course. We were close, but not so close that this change couldn’t be pondered.

I stood next to my mother, staring at the recesses of space fly passed us, utterly lost.

“I don’t know. You’ve seen everything. What do you make of it?”

Zoe had her arms crossed over her chest and an always severe look on her face. She shook her head slowly. “Well. If Niska really is gone that can only work in our favor. He wont be missed.”

“Everything we’ve learned in the last week has been odd. Something is going on in the background. And I can’t tell if its in our favor or not. Its unsettling.”

“All you can do is the mission that you set out for, and hope that everything else will adhere to taking the backseat until called upon.”

“Well, yeah I guess I don’t have a choice there.” I rested my hip against the wall. “It aint so simple though.”

“You asked for my advice. I gave it.”

“I don’t know. Everything was pretty simple a couple months ago. When…”

“When you got injured by a reaver and nearly died?”

“When I was doing my job.” I corrected. “The injury was a minor setback.”

“Almost losing your leg is far from minor, Affinity.”

“I didn’t almost lose it. Barely. I just broke it…”

I do not know why I was defending my occupation so much. With my mother, that was always a lost cause. She just set me with that familiar glare and twist of her mouth.

“Oh, and what about you?” I redirected the conversation. “You spend years in space gun toting and pirating. Mighty fine example you and Mal set, with all your adventures and coin looting hay-days. What’s a girl to do, when she is brought up around such legends?”

“You just don’t learn, do you?” She scoffed. “You think you do right by us with your looking for trouble?”

I just rose a brow at her.

“I’m going to tell you the same thing I’ve been saying since you were five: do as I say. Not as I do.”

“I just don’t see how you can deprive me of flying. All I’ve ever wanted was to fly.”

“I have a right to be concerned with your welfare. I brought you into this gorram ‘verse. I fought for your survival and comfort every single day of your childhood. I sacrificed everything for you, Fin. But I did those things so that you would be happy. So that you wouldn’t have to. So that you wouldn’t grow up the way that I did.”

“Its in my blood. Its in you, it was in dad. Its me, mom.”

Zoe actually showed a slight sign of softening. She reached a hand out and tucked my hair behind my ear. “Yeah. Its heredity. Use that excuse.”

All the years of me watching my mother haul cargo and respect out of the company around her. All that time. How could I not be fanciful for the legacy she’d left behind? How could I not want to snatch my piece of glory?

“I know that avoiding your roots aint always an option. But you know, it aint all fancy.”

“I’ve always known that.”

“Its hard. And it will get harder. Rushing to the aid of your crew. Saving yourself by the skin off your back. It wont always be so slick. You wont always make it out in one piece.”

“I cant imagine doing anything else. How can I sit back and do the mundane? It just don’t seem a justice to what you’ve shown me. Mother, I’ve seen the entire ‘verse with you!”

“That wasn’t enough to whet your appetite?”

“Not when there is so much potential. How often in history is an opportunity like my occupation going to arise? Not often, if we have our way. I’ll have a part of it. I wont be in the background, I just wont.”

We were quiet for a minute while the hum of the ship drowned out our thoughts and our shoulders brushed together from a slight jerk of movement. She seemed to be searching for words, and I just waited. When she finally spoke, Zoe was back to gruff.

“You never had to seek my attention. You never wanted for it. Affinity. You know that you’re everything that matters to me.”

“I know.” I said to her retreating back as she turned away from me. “I just…wanted to be strong like you.”

I didn’t know she’d heard me. “I’m only strong when I have to be.” She said.

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We orbited Valgrind. From the diagrams that popped up on our screen, it was a pisser of a place with only two settlements to speak of, each owned by a blocked name and with no specifics. It screamed dirty deeds. No monitoring available at all, no alliance, meaning no worry of a raid or unscheduled search. Niska must have paid more than a pretty penny to keep it that way.

Out of necessity, we’d brought Josef to the helm in order to secure us admittance. He was having a job of it explaining what exactly he was doing there unannounced, and the Solider he spoke to was reluctant to give him clearance. However with the threat of Shad rendering him paralyzed with the use of a shock vest wrapped around his midsection, he was doing pretty well. Soon the necessary protocol was met, and we were breaking atmo at a high speed.

“Remember,” I spoke to our kidnapped compatriot, patting him on his stomach. “This little festoon you’re wearing is locked up tight. Only we have the key. It also has a recorder, the signal of which comes straight to us. Whatever you hear, we hear. Shad tells us anything funny-like, if there is a sneeze out of line, you’ll be left stiffer than a rod. But what am I telling you for. I’m sure you’ve used one of these to torture your boss’s little playmates before. Hell, as sick as he is, he’s probably shown you its effects just to render up some loyalty out of you.”

His answer was a curl of his lip, which led me to believe it was true.

I looked at Patty, who was sweating a lot heavier than his bald counterpart. Obviously the threat of being paralyzed was enough to keep him obedient.

“Your job is simple. Distract them. Tell them Niska is missing. Lead them to believe that you were left in charge of this place. We get in, we get our girls, and maybe we will take you back with us to civilization.”

“Maybe.” Case reiterated.

“If this goes south, we’re blaming you. And believe me when I say you’ll wish you’d never been born when Shad is done with you. He’s wired these contraptions extra hot, see? You wont move so much as a pinky toe, ever again, in your unnatural lives if he hears those troops filing out before they’re supposed to.” I smiled sweetly. “So please, don’t give us a reason to fry you.”

I wasn’t sure how well my threats were working. Obviously, Niska had to be scarier than I was. However, these big boys were in my hands now. And I would do whatever it took to get my crew back. If that mean making good on war words? Then so be it.

“What do you plan to do?” Josef said. “You can’t mean to take on those guards. There isn’t enough of you. And Soldier, well, he’ll make short work of you and your crew.”

“Oh, how sweet of you to ask. But do us a favor and worry about your own hide, why don’t you?” Case said, lifting a gun high over his shoulder.

Vanya walked up to Gordon, sneaking an arm around his midsection. “Are you sure you can do ‘zis?” She asked him, a small amount of concern leaking into her voice.

“No.” Case’s demeanor was ridged. “However, I will. For Katherine. We need every man here, right?”

“That we do,” I told them. “We don’t quite know what to expect. This is all pure risk.”

“Well, we have Mal,” Hale said with confidence. “And we have Zoe. What else do we need?”

It was going to take more than having the captain of Serenity and his former second in command to help us right now. It was going to take some hope. And a miracle.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Katherine

The day was filled with pretending to work as we’d been told. But in reality, we were tearing the village apart. Boards were sanded to be as sharp as possible. Riggings were fashioned. We armed ourselves with everything else we could. Fireplace pokers. Rocks. Hammers. Shovels and rakes. Screwdrivers. Cement and clay blocks. Saws. Literally anything we thought could be used to bring down on someone’s head or to stab through their skin.

It made me feel inadequate. I was used to handling some of the most powerful weaponry in the ‘verse. Dealing with Reavers, however, led me to some simple secrets. And one of those secrets is: chemicals hurt. You put a little bit of something toxic at the end of a spike, and voila. Burning skin. Burning eyes. You win.

The trouble was getting close enough to those guards in order to test this theory. They still had guns. And even if we slightly outnumber them, it may not be enough. They could mow us down with an automatic and piss on our remains. However, we were determined to believe that we were worth more to their boss alive. If anything, they’d want to set an example to those too afraid to fight. Their goal would be to capture and stop us, show us what happened to those who fancied uprising.

What would happen if they did catch us? I didn’t want to think about. But it was something along the lines of horror, those tortures that in the back of your mind you refuse to acknowledge.

We were silent for most of the day. No one felt in the mood to talk. The non-combative folk helped us as best they could before going into hiding. Soon the village looked prepared for war. Once Soldier walked in here, there would be no doubt in his mind what we were up to.

The question was, why had they let us get away with this?

Usually a guard would have stalked around the perimeter by now. He would have heard the ruckus and alerted someone. But nothing was heard. The gates stayed closed, and we were able to take our time and be sure that everything was prime.

However, breakfast came and went, and still no guard showed up. No one came in with our food barrel or to cart away our waste. No shouts from the other side alerted us to anything.

Lunch. We were starting to get suspicious. Too nervous to do anything but drink water, I held my station. Raising my makeshift crossbow, I checked to make sure it was in working order.

Soon we heard sounds, but it wasn’t what I expected. The sounds of ships echoed around the area. I looked up into the sky. It was such a racket. Ghost slid up beside me, her eyes roving just as mine were.

“Are they leaving?” Bryar asked, voicing our fears.

“No. It’d be a lot louder than that if they were. Whatever vessel that is, its far off.”

I was used to hearing the loud hiss of the enemies engine as they took off to change shifts or to bring in more prisoners. Their boat was no more than a mile away from the village. So close in fact that we could see its take off clearly as it went. But this ship, ships I corrected myself, were small dotted outlines in the hazy sky that I couldn’t make head or tail of. They were landing a far off distance away, too far to know much about. I couldn’t tell what types of ships they might be, being that the sky was so dark with yet-to-fall rain.

A small panic gripped me. Those ships could easily be reinforcements. If Solider knew that we were planning on making a fuss, he could have called in for more men. They could have us on the ground before we blinked twice. That horror that I had been keeping at bay was becoming all too real at the moment.

“What the hell do you think is going on?” Jacy asked.

I couldn’t answer her. A rock sized lump had entered my throat. Had we just written our story short? Were we about to sign off for good? It felt that way. All of my instincts went onto high alert. Doom persisted.

We were finished.

“This will not be good.” I finally said. “Nothing has been going in our favor all this time. I hesitate to think it has now.”

“What are we supposed to do?” Ghost asked.

I squared my shoulders. “The plan.”

“You can’t be serious. If there are more men-”

“Then we will make them sorry. Everything is set. We are doing this. No way out now.”

My heart was racing. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been this afraid. Certainly not while taking on a ship full of reavers. No. Half the time they didn’t scare me at all. We’d won against them so many times, it was damn near clockwork antagonizing them.

But this? I’d never been kidnapped before. Brutalized. Or threatened with rape. I’d never had to slave for anyone. Even when my life had been endangered with the crew of Chunjing, I’d never thought of death. Now I was. And it wasn’t shiny.


We weren’t prepared when the guards filed in. All of my angst increased tenfold when the heavy gates opened. We all hunched low with our weapons ready. I wasn’t sure how we were going to ambush them.

They didn’t go by normal protocol. These guards had to be new. And they were skilled. This was highly upsetting.

Each of them had their faces concealed by a scarf. They wore ordinary clothing, not uniformed. They each had a gun out and were canvassing the area, easily spotting the various booby traps and sinkholes that we’d labored over. They were silent as they made their way deeper into the village. No shouts for us to line up, no bell, only a relentless eye scouring of the area.

One of their crew bent to a task, punching numbers on a keypad and setting up a contraption with wires. I squinted into the distance, easily making it out. A bomb. They were going to bomb us.

“They’re planting bombs!” I mouthed urgently to Bryar. I wasn’t sure he got what I was trying to say. But the way he was frowning in their direction showed me that he wasn’t okay with what he was seeing.

The only thing I could think of to counter their assault was to ambush them. However, that would require coming out of our hiding places. We stood, mute, as the lone gunner continued his laborious tick-tock setup.

I was rearing to go. My weapon tight in my hands, I looked over to my fellow captives. Each face I found was just as confused as I was. We had no options.

Just as I was about to propose we move forward, a miraculous thing happened. River stood up from where she was hidden and removed her makeshift helmet from her head. Her long ripple of black hair caught the wind and flew haywire.

“Thought so.” She said softly.

“What are you doing?” I hissed urgently. But she ignored me.

River walked lightly away from us. I was frozen, unable to stop her even though my brain screamed for me to grab her heel.

The nearby work stopped. Each arrival turned in River’s direction. They were frozen as well.

River continued her slow walk. The low quality of her patchwork gown revealed not only spots of her pale skin, but also of the hardships she had been enduring. Her slow gait was measured and careful. Her eye was steely.

One of the men walked up to her quickly, stopping just before reaching her. He reached out a hand. She reached one to him. Their fingers clasped.

I couldn’t believe it. A weird croak sounded in my throat as hope erupted inside of me. And then it all came crashing down on me in waves of relief. Bedazzlement. The confusion ebbed and left me. I dropped my crossbow and sunk into the ground, my knees slamming hard on the boards beneath me.

Hale removed his face cover, showing his hasty smile.

So. They had come after all.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Affinity

Seeing River and Hale reunite was something I could not accurately put into words. They simply stared at each other for a long while, holding hands. Not speaking. Hale smiled. River held a ghost of a grin, her eyes slightly haunted. Her clothes were disheveled and dirty. She looked far too thin. But she was alive. And the look she gave Hale, which deepened beyond any look before, bespoke of her confidence of his rescuing her.

We walked up to her, each removing our masks in order for her to see that we’d come. After she saw us all, she did smile.

“What took you?” she asked with an edge of a joke to her tone.

Hale made a sound that was halfway sob and laugh. He rounded his shorter aunt into his embrace and squeezed her tight. She gently patted his back, then cradled his head against her shoulder.

“We’re so glad to see you safe.” Zoe told her.

Mal nodded beside her. “The good doctor is worried sick about you, little one.”

River acknowledged them with a somber glance, then closed her eyes and continued to hold her nephew.

As for me, I looked around the area once again. There wasn’t a sign of any other life, yet I knew we were being watched.

“Katherine? I think its about time you come out here.”

There was a whimper off in the distance. Then, none too far away, our Champ stood up. She was just as filthy as River, and a lot more bruised. She had dried blood on her collar and a ghastly pallor about her cheek. However, she was marching towards me with a gait that was unmistakably strong.

I met her halfway and grabbed her shoulder. She firmly grabbed mine in turn, a warrior’s greeting in the torn apart town.

“You’re not alright.” I pointed out the obvious.

“Not even close.” Tears were staining trails down her face, her voice shook, yet she somehow stayed erect. “I cannot believe you made it here.”

“Nether can I. It was a go tsao de job trying to find where you’d gotten stole to.”

The rest of the crew of Chunjing joined us, with the exception of Hale who refused to let go of his aunt, and Shad who was still working. I kept my eyes on Champ; she was beginning to look lightheaded.

“Fin. Its been hell. Literally. You don’t know-”

“Stop. We’ll talk about it later. First, we need to get you all out of here. There is a guard of twenty five men on this rock. They’re currently being distracted by a particularly ingenious ploy Vanya thought up. Shad is wiring some things-go-boom for us, and we’re getting out of here alive. You hear me?”

Katherine looked like she wanted to sink into a pool of nothing and be scraped back onto the ship with a dustpan. However I was determined to keep her motivated to get out. We weren’t through this yet. There was the getting out to see to.

Ghost walked up to our group with a fiery appreciation in her eyes. “The others want to know what’s going on. I told them that we’re saved. They sent me to double check.”

“Are not yet.” Vanya clarified. “Zere still matter of freeing ‘ze trapped ones here.”

“Right. We can’t just save three of you,” Case said. “This is war.”

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

“Everything is set up.” Shad came jogging over. He hugged Katherine tightly, then dusted some dirt off of her shoulder. “You okay, kiddo?”

Katherine looked surprised by the contact, but nodded quickly. “Now that you’re all finally here.”

“Like I said. We had our work cut out for us.” I turned to Hale, who had finally released River so that we could get to business. “What do you make of the riggings?” I pointed out the booby traps that I could find.

“It was the best we could do.” Ghost cut in. “Especially considering there are so many who wanted no part of this. They are hiding in the stables.”

Hale nodded. “Of course. You have limited supplies. As well as time. But we’re here now, and things are going to get a lot more fair.”

“Right,” Mal reiterated. “Can’t have a gun fight…without…guns.”

Which reminded me. Shaking myself visibly out of my lollygagging, I unclipped a gun from my side and handing it immediately to Katherine. She popped the magazine to check it, then reattached it once satisfied with what she saw.

“Sweet as this reunion is, we need to get a move on.” Mal signaled Jayne, who was directing his crew around looking for ways to improve upon the setups that had been hastily done.

“Tell your boys to come on out.” Hale told Ghost. She turned and sprinted away.

“Case,” I called. Gordon hurried over. “You and Seb should go watch the civilians who don’t want to fight. Ghost, why don’t you show them where they are?”

She looked so relieved to be told what to do, it was almost comical. The three of them hurried off without looking back.

Mal handed a gun to River with a hard look. “We’ve all seen you in action.” He said to her. “Don’t disappoint us now.”

River turned the weapon over in her hands. “Unregistered, alliance class. Targeted sighting. 12 gauge.” She flipped it skillfully in her palms before tucking it into the waistband of her belt. “I’ll make due.”

“What kind of uprising is this?” I heard Jayne grumble. “Most they got is playpen knick-er-knacks.

“Do you really expect better for prisoners?” Zoe was doing some inspecting herself. “Brunt of them haven’t had a proper meal in weeks. These guards aren’t looking to give them proper cutlery let alone a standard double barrel.”

“I’m just saying,” Jayne continued. “Some of these traps look like something out of a bad film.”

Hale was talking to the men and women willing to fight alongside us. They’d been here so long, you could tell that their pride was downtrodden. However they were willing to aid us, and they were being equipped for battle.

Once all was in place, I turned to Shad. “Party time.”

It was what he’d been waiting for. Shad signaled for everyone to get behind the waif of a fort. We each hunkered down. Knowing Shad, there was going to be quite a sound.

And sure enough, there was. Shad got in front of me behind the protection of the shield, which was mostly stacked up furniture.

Then he bellowed at the top of his lungs, “PATTY CAKE!”

The ensuing noise was far from just deafening. It sounded as if Shad had just torn apart the entire world. I wouldn’t have been surprised if, upon standing up, I discovered that the only slice of land left were the one we currently stood on.

Debris and dust flew in every direction. Everyone hid their head beneath the cover of their arms. I felt the whoosh of air and splintered wood hit my hands, but nothing too worrying. Apparently we were far enough back to avoid the majority of the explosion. Had to hand it to him, Shad did know what he was doing.

Once the onslaught stopped, as much as it could, we heard lots of shouts and noise on the other side. They were arming themselves and coming for us.

“Patty cake?” Vanya muttered to Shad.

Shad shrugged. “No one would say that now, would they?”

“I don’t think I’ll ever say it again.”

Shad jerked violently and held the side of his head. Then he groaned. “Uh oh.” he said, pulling an ear bud from his ear. “They’ve shot them both.”

Josef and Patty. I clenched my eyes shut for a moment. I hadn’t planned on them dying. Oh well.

“Get up,” Mal said. “Let them see our pretty faces.”

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The battle wasn’t necessarily long. But it was bloody. Shad’s ka-booms made short work of some of the men. Enough that while some were pouring in, others were pouring out. You could tell the cowards from the rest right away.

Then the one they call Soldier was in. And he was a big one. And mean. He was shooting off rounds with a vengeance that nearly matched ours. The bass of his voice echoed around us. He scared a lot of his men into staying in the thrall.

A good ol’ fashioned gun fight. Mal was having fun with it, playing peek-a-boo with a lot of the lesser skilled. Soldier was particularly peeved by this, looking around for someone meek to take out. However, Zoe and I were holding him off, not letting him closer than comfort allowed.

I saw a few people in my peripheral go down without looking over. If it were nothing serious, they’d be saved.

“All we came for is our crew you done took,” Mal shouted at Soldier when he forced some of his men back from the fray. “You have a choice here. Let us leave. All of us. And you’ll be left in one piece.”

Soldier sneered. “Oh you wish it would be that easy. This here aint your property, and it aint none of your concern. Now I’m giving YOU the chance to give up. Or you and your entire yellowbellied gang will BE pieces.”

“Eloquent. But I don’t think we’re accepting those terms.”

After a few more yells and curses, he advanced again. They didn’t get far. Soon they were once again ducking for cover as our bullets rained down on them. Some of them ran dead into the booby traps awaiting use. Others hunkered down in the ruined remains of the thatched houses.

I felt a sting go across my shoulder and realized I’d been grazed. Irritated, I slipped back down behind the barrier and hissed in pain.

“Affinity?” Zoe called my name, but kept her eyes on her targets.

“I’m okay.” I answered immediately. “Just a knick. I will see to it later.”

The gunshots continued. I took the time to reload, looking around. Some of the captives were injured. Some were dead. But my crew seemed whole. We were used to more direct combat than this. Knowing when to duck was second nature to us.

I heard another explosion and knew that Shad must have hauled another grenade at the troops. There was a lot of noise, and Zoe slid down beside me as more debris coated the air.

“We aren’t getting out unless they surrender.” She growled.

I nodded. “Time for a new tactic?”

Zoe called loudly over the ringing in our ears. “Mal?”

“I hear ya, Zoe.” Mal answered. “Hey Soldier? I got an idea. How ‘bouts we settle this man to man?”

A bellow of a laugh followed this request. “What, ten paces then turn and draw?”

“I was thinking more of fists.”

“How do I know I can trust you to lay down your arms?”

“We got to have a little faith in one another, don’t we?”

There was a terse silence. Then, “Come on out then. Lets finish this.”

Mal walked from behind his cover, and as soon as he did the rest of us stood and backed him. Our weapons were poised and ready. We weren’t going to allow any tricks.

“You first.” Mal ordered.

Soldier looked more than apprehensive. However he tossed his automatic to the ground.

Mal threw one of his pistols.

Soldier took a gun from his back pocket and threw that.

Mal threw his other pistol.

Soldier threw yet another.

The pile grew. Until finally.

Mal threw his last. Then shrugged. “Maybe I should have gone first.”

Soldier’s eyes were murder. “You should have.”

Soldier snatched one of his partner’s guns, pointed it in my direction, and shot.


Everything was a blur. Then a lot of sound.

The one thing I knew was that a bullet was whizzing towards me. But before I could fully comprehend that, I was flat on the ground.

There were a lot of gun shots after that. Shouts. Screams. I was trying to focus on whether or not I had been wounded or possibly killed.

Aside from my head hurting from the hard contact onto the ground, I seemed fine. I looked around after the noise stopped. The first thing I saw was a dead Soldier on the ground, a knife in his neck and his body riddled with holes. I saw some of his men limping or crawling away, others were obviously in the same condition as their ringleader.

It was when I rose up that I saw what really mattered, what happened.

Zoe was on the ground alongside me. She was covered with blood. Her eyes were open in a blank, cold stare.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Please don’t die…Please. Please don’t die. Don’t die. Don’t die…

Don’t die. Don’t die.

No.

Please let me die instead.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Katherine

It was hard getting Affinity off of Zoe. Eventually Mal managed to tug her away so that she could be inspected. It didn’t take much to know that the Second in Command was dead.

I ran into the stable to find some of the salvaged items. I brought a sheet back to the scene, and Jayne and Vanya gently wrapped Zoe’s body into it. Once it was tight and secure, Jayne lifted her into his arms.

“You don’t have to-” I started to tell him, pointing something we could drag her remains on. He stopped me in my tracks with a look. Then he walked away, cradling Zoe determinedly.

The rest of us tried to figure out what was best to do. We divided the survivors based on who would fit where. The livestock, if you could call it that, were put onto Serenity along with half of the villagers. The rest crammed into Chunjing, huddled together in the hull.

Vanya took over command and got the ships into the air.

We didn’t see River, Mal, Jayne, Hale or Affinity for the entirety of take off.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

“Hey.”

I looked over when Sebastian called me. He came up with a steaming mug and handed it to me.

I took it with a small frown. “What’s this?”

“Don’t ask, just drink it.”

I rose a brow at him.

“You’ve been on an unregulated moon for months. It doesn’t do wonders for your health, trust me. This will help boost your immune system. And it will calm you. For when I examine you in about five minutes.”

Oh right. I was riddled with injuries as well as fatigue. “I’m more worried about other things at the moment. How is Fin?”

It was his turn to stare.

I sighed. “I know. I just want to see her.”

“No one should see her right now. So put it from your mind. Tell me how you’re doing.”

“Oh. Well. I feel guilty. For being so damn happy right now.”

“No one will curse you for it.”

“You all came for me.” I stared at him in wonder. “You have no idea what I went through, thinking that you weren’t going to.”

“I have a vague idea.”

“I thought I was going to die. I thought I would never see any of you again. And now I’m here. Back home. In the sky. I want to…run in circles and scream halleluiah to the ceiling, but I just don’t have the gorram energy.”

“Its probably best. Everyone would think you’d lost your marbles.”

“I have. Seb. What am I going to do now that I’m back here?”

“Its understandable to endure this aftermath. But you’ll be set right in the end. You will return to yourself, just as glorious and present as before.”

“And what if I don’t?”

“Don’t accept that as an option.” Seb grabbed my arm. “Now enough of this. Let me inspect you.”

I walked away with him, noticing that as we left Bryar was staring up at us from his spot in the crowded hull.
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