By Christopher Walsh
3,113 words. Inspired by Firefly, created by Joss Whedon and Tim Minear, and Serenity, written/directed by Whedon. Characters c/o Joss’s big, giant, story-holding head. Story notes here.
When his world as he knew it disintegrated, he faced that shattered existence with both arms broken. He stayed still, pinned down and unable to move to a less painful position, at a bare minimum using his mental discipline — vast, even now — not to fidget and thus aggravate the injuries. He weathered the pain, and weathered the news in the report that hologrammed in the air in front of him.
The vid had been recorded years ago in language simple and heartbreaking. That long-passed scientist, wounded idealism still showing through the terror that threatened to choke off her words, made clear the disaster on this world she had monitored: too many people drugged into a living sleep, slipping too easily into death. A fraction of a fraction of that same population, driven into a unique, horrific madness. So much of the solar system, in the decade or more since that report, lost; so many colonists, dead from murder or madness; so much wreaked. So much wrecked.
“It’s the Pax…”
The Operative — a man who didn’t know his own name, who had lost (given up? Gladly, perhaps?) identity in exchange for a mission to make this solar system a better, improved home for humanity — knew finally one especial secret he had been trained to protect. He heard the words; he saw the Pax’s aftermath; he witnessed the scientist’s death at the hands of a monster who was still a human at some unsalvageable level. And as his arms sang songs of immense pain and the generator that whirred below him made its own, greater noise, his mind, briefly, risked shutting down.
Reports from soldiers jumpstarted his thoughts.
He heard the urgent notices, just enough information for him to piece together what was happening elsewhere in the complex — the target River Tam acquired, Tam still alive after everything, the other personnel of the cargo vessel Serenity likely acquired as well, soldiers’ weapons at the ready — and he wondered, distantly, what would happen should he not say anything. The hologram, no longer playing, seemed to hang in front of his gaze, even now. “We meant it for the best,” the scientist had said.
Too long, he told himself; end this. He said what needed saying.
“Stand down. Stand down. It’s finished. We’re all finished.”
The Operative kept his gaze steady on the space where the hologram had been. He did not let his gaze fall for a long time.
Days passed in a dull rush.
He was shuttled back to one of the surviving Alliance vessels for medical attention. On his way up, he had watched the cleanup of debris left in orbit following the Alliance-Reaver battle. Much had burned up in the atmosphere or impacted on the pockmarked surface of the planet where the late “Mr. Universe” had set up his operation, but enough flotsam and jetsam remained as to be a hazard. And the Operative had overheard some surviving personnel say they could not abide knowing Reaver vessels, even pieces of them, were nearby.
The debris seemed tainted, many said.
Grant them that moment of superstition, the Operative had thought. Not only was this their first close brush with Reavers, they now know what caused the Reavers. That knowledge may have led them to want to be completely done with the Alliance. Focusing on debris keeps them doing their job; they will not question their work too much, not so much as to drive them away.
To his lack of surprise, he’d been kept far from Serenity’s surviving crew. Some were being treated for wounds on an entirely different ship. The Operative understood the desire for distance. He’d wished not to see them; he’d imagined they felt the same of him. Most probable that the level of injury simply didn’t compare. Not that he knew: scuttlebutt among Alliance crewmembers about the Serenity crew wasn’t reaching him.
People were quieter near him.
Soon after his first treatments to speed up the re-knitting of his bones, the Operative was seen by his former fourth-in-command. There had been an immensity of casualties; the command vessel alone had suffered 81% attrition. That a surviving officer from that ship was as high as fourth in command was a small kind of…no, not “miracle,” the Operative did not hold to a belief in that, but it was almost a convenience. And a small comfort; as massively as the battle had gone wrong, killing so many good people, one clung to the good people who’d remained.
The vid winked on with the young man‘s face. “Sir,” the officer said.
The Operative, on the med-bed and lying still amidst the brizzzzz of instruments repairing him, turned his head towards the vid. Credentials identified him as Quartermaster Zachariah Toln — a logistics officer, thrust into command. The younger man flinched, quickly breaking eye contact. A crack in his discipline, he thought; he must get over that.
“Yes, officer. Report.”
“Sir, yes,” Toln said awkwardly. “We successfully destroyed all Reaver ships that had remained in orbit. We, uh, we avoided any boardings; they never managed to land on Alliance vessels. Some of our fighters lured ships into the atmosphere at bad re-entry angles that damaged them, slowed them down enough to be shot down. We are cataloging crash sites on the surface, in case of survivors. Some on recon have volunteered to…to neutralize any survivors; if this is fine, sir, we would like to allow personnel to do so…”
“That will be fine,” the Operative said. “That would have been fine quite a while ago, in fact.” He flashed on his rare moment of near-panic, and it was as if he were aggravating a wound: Target the Reavers. Target the Reavers. Target everyone. Somebody FIRE!
“Th— thank you, sir,” Toln said, and he turned away to speak code into a link. The Operative heard muffled acknowledgement on a crackling, hard-to-hear line. More damage; he was not used to Alliance technology being at less than 100% efficiency. Have I been in battle, in the past, before my ascension to Operative status? Have I been among such damage before?
Toln returned to his report. “We’ve salvaged some Alliance personnel from other crash sites. Evidence at wrecks elsewhere shows land battles, including…well…hand-to-hand combat. We found no survivors in those circumstances.”
“Has all of this been reported to Parliament?”
“Yes, sir. Recovery ships are being sent from nearby colonies. Grapplers are included, so some damaged vessels are being prepped for tows to repair stations.”
“Means Parliament is not abandoning us,” the Operative said.
He realized he’d spoken overly softly, to himself and not to Toln. “Forgive me. I was…concerned it might be easier for Parliament to leave us to fend for ourselves.” Was that a cynical moment? he thought. “We indeed still seem worth rescuing.”
Toln looked thoughtful, and uncomfortable with those thoughts.
“How far has the signal reached?” the Operative asked.
“It’s known in most of the system by now, sir,” he said. “Some protests reported. Sprung up in a few of the more populated outer and mid-range colonies. Two or three riots; it’s unclear yet how many. Parliament has been in continuous session for” — Toln looked away — “four days. Representatives have willingly taken stims to keep the debates going.” He paused.
The Operative said, “Well. I suspect they would have trouble sleeping even without stims.” There seemed to be a deep, ugly joke behind that statement, but his discipline kept it in the depths. He turned away from Toln. “Likely some are concerned with our…our final disposition. Disaster must have cause. It must have blame.”
At least my punishment will not be public, the Operative thought. How the Alliance would confront, or at minimum appear to confront, the destabilization caused by the signal had to be addressed. As he officially did not exist, he could not be made an example. Unless the government made up a role for me, he decided. He added, Yes. That was a cynical thought.
Toln shifted, and took a while to meet the Operative’s gaze again. “Sir. Yes. I will inform you if Parliament reps wish to contact you.”
“Noted. And — appreciated, Toln.” The Quartermaster first seemed to relax with relief at “appreciated,” but then winced when the Operative said his name. This time, the breach in discipline vaguely amused him.
Parliament reached him in the middle of the ship’s scheduled night.
With most of his healing complete and him out of the med bay, being jolted from sleep was merely an inconvenience, not cause for pain. His room lights faded on as the signal announcing the incoming vid sounded; his eyes adjusted quickly. He briefly considered a stim, but decided it wasn’t needed. He straightened his bedclothes and marshaled his thoughts.
No view of the grass or plazas surrounding the Parliament on Londinium; the vid showed a functional, sterile control room, behind the ash-grey-suited Alliance rep. Two Hands of Blue stood in the background. The Operative was unimpressed. Meaningless show of force, he thought. This man feels he needs muscle even when addressing someone half across the system.
The man spoke first. “Brethren. Report.” His tone flattened out the honorific he used for the Operative, as if saying Protocol requires I acknowledge your abilities and role; protocol does not require me to mean it.
“The Reavers on the planet are not an immediate threat,” the Operative said, certain the Alliance already knew details but compelled to summarize as quickly as possible. “None remain in orbit. Any Reaver survivors are scattered on the surface and lack resources. They will be easy to starve out. Some of our surviv— our remaining crew members have been cleaning up Reavers as they are found.”
He could imagine how they were doing this, though he had not observed the sweeps: they needed to conserve projectiles in the wake of the Universe Battle. Some remaining shuttles had grapplers strong enough to lift boulders off the surface; cleanup crews were simply dropping those on what was left of Reaver ships, or Reavers themselves. The Operative hid his distaste at the method. Inelegant, he thought. But it avoided touching anything of the Reavers’, and gave the crews some small measure of release. Of revenge.
“You can confirm,” the Alliance rep said, again flatly, “no flights between this planet and Miranda.” Only the barest hint this was a question.
“Correct. Nothing is happening there.”
“The Serenity crew.” A brief flash of annoyance through the vid: a bare under-dozen individuals had weakened, potentially destabilized the entire Alliance. The Operative understood the annoyance.
“Under observation, some in sick bay.”
“The Tams are not in custody.” And this is because…? was implied.
The Operative was ready for this. “The Tams do not need to be in custody. They cannot harm the Alliance any further. Our focus should now be towards containing the Reaver threat…”
“The Reavers will be dealt with,” said the rep.
“If I may suggest a method,” the Operative said.
“Strike at Miranda,” he said. “Enough Reavers are there to be a compelling target. We could cripple them. Make a show of it: broadcast the attack. Tell the people of the system that the Alliance, once it knew where the heart of the Reavers was, cut out that heart. It would — it would be both symbolic and true.” He felt surprised that he had said that, but made sure not to let his surprise show. Him poetic? Him (almost) pleading? The Operative had been ruthless before, as needed — he had kept secrets, and had kept them well — but matter-of-factly. He hoped he still sounded matter-of-fact, but the elegance of neutralizing the threat spoke to him.
“That,” said the rep, “will not be necessary.”
“Not.” The Operative matched the man’s flatness, but yes: he was surprised.
“We have already assessed the situation and determined this would be an improper use of resources. Enough of the Reavers remain elsewhere in the system that an attack at Miranda would not significantly reduce their threat. The Reavers are decentralized. They can be fought locally.”
And, at that rate, never stopped, he thought. As if the Alliance finds the Reavers somehow, potentially, useful.
“I still believe there would be psychological value in a Miranda attack,” the Operative said, mechanically.
“Parliament disagrees, Brethren. Anything further to report?”
The Operative considered pointlessly waiting to reply: make the rep and his Hands of Blue stand awkwardly awaiting more news. No; his displeasure would be too obvious from the gesture. “Nothing at this time. Sir.” Not a needed honorific, but said to go through the motions.
“Noted. As for the disposition of the Serenity and its crew?”
“If you need me to escort them to Persephone, I will be able to do so.”
“Hmm. Brethren, no decision has been made yet. But we will take this under advisement…”
“If I may respectfully interrupt.”
“Unexpected choice of words.” The rep tightly smiled. “Continue.”
“I believe I would be the clearest choice to escort the crew to Persephone, to facilitate repairs and allow them to be on their way. I trust you will see this.”
“Certainly advised. Londinium out.” Blank screen.
The Operative had not said what he’d considered saying: I would ensure the Tams continue not to be a threat, along with the rest of the crew, once you allow us to leave for Persephone. The rep would’ve known what the Operative was implying: the rep, and the Parliament luminaries he reported to, would not be above petty revenge, in the aftermath of the signal. But with a Miranda mission out, Parliament’s message was clear enough: We accept the status quo. For now. The renegade crew may disappear, without needing to truly, irrevocably, disappear.
The Operative didn’t return to sleep. He suspected he would not sleep well.
Something is different.
It was like a switch had flipped…which was almost exactly true. He had considered it possible this had been done, and seemed to feel the change — one confirmed when he walked the corridor to the ship’s bridge and placed his hand on the pad meant to show his authorized access to the chamber. Nothing happened. Not the embarrassment of an alarm; not the once-expected quiet voice gently announcing the Operative’s clearance. Simply, pointedly, nothing.
With closed eyes and an internal sigh, he deliberately sought certain specialized knowledge he’d learned as an Operative…and felt that knowledge at a remove, farther and farther from possibly being grasped. They seemed to be ghost-thoughts. This went beyond taking away his clearance and unfettered movement; the Alliance had secured some of his own mind from him.
Something in his head was now closed off.
You knew, at some level, this would be done, he admonished himself. You may or may not have agreed to this in your role as an Operative, but this was always a chance: that you could no longer think or do anything to potentially harm the Alliance.
The Alliance protects itself. Even from its own. Its former own.
He was, at a fundamental level, no longer an Operative. Deactivated, and done so at a remove. It was almost elegant.
I do not have to like that, he thought, but I can — grudgingly — respect that.
Word from Parliament: Serenity and crew to be towed to Persephone repair facilities, with intermediate stop requested at Haven. The Operative, and the small escort vessel’s crew, accepted this; run out the leash long enough for Serenity’s crew to handle what they needed to handle. The three bodies taken to Haven for burial were not an issue for the Operative, as they were onboard Serenity. Both ships landed at Haven; the escort crew simply waited. On-ground business completed, Serenity and escort broke atmo. Uneventful, simple mission. The two vessels reached Persephone without incident. He left them to their work; it was time not to care.
Until the moment one of the escort crew request I join them outside the vessel, he thought, imagining the crew coming out and forming a symbolic human wall on the landing pad, between him and the craft. No; no, they would not do so. They know that could be their death, should I decide to turn my attack skills — those I still have — on them.
But I know: I am not wanted. Those I report to want me out of the picture.
I can do so.
Have you walked away from anything before? he thought, later, as he wandered Eavesdown Yards. In that unremembered previous life? That life that does not exist?
Do you feel this is the correct, proper thing to do now? That it is done doesn’t answer that. Do you feel this makes you noble? That it changes the balance in the ledger of this life? Are you a better person for doing so? Are you worse? More of a monster, or less?
And does it matter? What happens next…it’s not meant for you. You know so. You told Capt. Reynolds so. You knew so before the Signal.
You knew before you looked at the record of the Tam’s escape and saw what Simon Tan looked like…and thought it was dangerous. Love. Dangerous.
Is that all love would be to you?
You won’t be apt to learn.
He continued walking, aimless for the first time in this life.
Rain. Big deal. He’d handle it in order to say his piece. That damnable Capt. Reynolds eventually appeared at the cargo hold’s ramp, busying himself with final touches to his ship. One last conversation, and separate ways would happen.
“It’s not over. I can’t guarantee they won’t come after you. The Parliament. Your broadwave about Miranda has weakened their regime, but they are not gone and they are not forgiving.”
“That don’t bode especially well for you, giving the order to let us go, patching up our hurt.”
“I told them the Tams were no longer a threat. Damage done. They might listen, but I think they know I am no longer their man.” No need to tell Reynolds how I know.
“They take you down, I don’t expect to grieve over you much. Like to kill you myself, I see you again.”
“You won’t. There is nothing left to see.”
The Operative turned. He did not turn back, several minutes later, at the engine noise asserting itself over the rain, as Serenity once again found sky.