The Unified Planets Intelligence Agency manual provided an interrogator with a list of “personality categories”, each whose inner weaknesses could be determined by observing external behaviors. These types included: the orderly-obstinate subject, the optimistic subject, the greedy, demanding subject, the anxious self-centered subject, the guilt-ridden subject, the subject wrecked by success, and the schizoid subject. These categories were meant to give the interrogator insight into his or her subject, so it could be best determined what combination of solicitousness and menace would yield the best result.
Inara Serra fell between orderly-obstinate and guilt-ridden, a combination best approached with a high degree of solicitousness. Since being brought into custody about 48 hours earlier—the house priestess had done an impeccable job of making sure that everything happened without incident—she’d been treated more like a guest than a prisoner.
“I haven’t heard from him in months,” Inara said, hands folded carefully on her lap. “He cut off contact at the start of the . . . police action.”
“Which would certainly seem to indicate that he returned to the insurrectionists at that time, wouldn’t it?”
Inara sighed. They kept talking to her about some smuggler—some blockade runner who was causing the Alliance all kinds of headaches by getting weapons and supplies to even the most carefully besieged Independents. It sounded just like Mal, but she knew it wasn’t. She wanted to tell them, “You’re wrong. Mal doesn’t have another war in him. Especially not this war, the one that in his infinite narcissism he believes started because of him.”
“We’re only asking for a list of contacts. The ports you were in before the two of you parted ways. The new associations he would have had to make.”
Orange flames against the gray sky on Haven flashed in front of Inara’s eyes.
The officer unscrewed the cap of his water bottle, took a careful sip, then screwed it shut. It was a move calculated to make the silence seem natural, as if it weren’t under Inara’s control.
They sat in his office rather than an interrogation room, like they were colleagues discussing a work matter. The office had a window to the outside. Londinum was beautiful this time of year. Looking out into the courtyard, you never would have guessed that the entire ‘verse was at war.
* * * *
Zoë turned the capture over in her hands searchingly. A young version of herself stared back at her, weary but defiant, her lips turned up in a knowing half-smile.
Zoë had never been a sentimental person. This was just about her only memento and certainly her only memento of the first war. She wasn’t sure why she was looking at it like it held the answer to what her next move should be. And what a memento! It was a fiasco so complete that none of the Alliance brass lost their jobs over it, because firing people would have meant admitting a mistake.
When there were too many Browncoats in the POW camps to make any more “re-education” practical—or even make preventing widespread mutiny practical—thousands of the less important prisoners were released and given enough credits for passage back to their home worlds. It seemed like a good idea at the time, to send them off in their prison uniforms. The official explanation was that it was a security measure—the POWs had to take public transport since military transport couldn’t be organized so soon after the armistice—and shouldn’t an Alliance citizen know if the person getting into their train car was a Browncoat? But everyone knew it was more than that; that it was meant to humiliate and ostracize. The Alliance counted on there being a certain amount of shame, at least shame in their defeat.
What they didn’t count on were so many of the prisoners holding on to their defiant spirit through all of it, or their ingenuity at finding one last way to thumb their noses at the imperialists. Portrait stands sprang up around all of the major POW compounds. Browncoats flocked to have their captures taken in their POW uniforms.
The Alliance had also mistaken obedience for loyalty. No one could have guessed how many sympathizers there were, or how many good citizens were just embarrassed by the whole thing: how many people would buy them food, pass them a few credits, wave them past the ticket counters at the docks or even just give up their seats so a disabled soldier didn’t have to stand.
The entire thing was more than a public relations nightmare for the Alliance; it became an enduring symbol of a resistance. Years later, those captures could still be found hanging in places of pride in homes in every distant corner of the Rim.
It didn’t take Zoë long to decide what to do.
* * * *
Inara wasn’t sure why she was removed from her cell so suddenly and rushed through booking. No one told her a thing. All she knew was what she overheard when one agent started to chastise another for not having a particular form.
“Someone with a level three clearance requested her release,” came the response. “Here. Today. In person.”
The color rushed to the agent’s cheeks and his eyes narrowed in Inara’s direction. He didn’t need to say anything because it his expression said it all: ‘Whore. Looks like one of your fancy johns came to bail you out.’ And then it was another whirl of paperwork and scans and so on. Inara thought hard about everyone she knew who might have a level three clearance, but of course she wasn’t privy to that kind of information about her clients.
Inara knew that her reaction when she first saw her benefactor was going to be important. She needed to project appreciation but not gratitude, happiness but not relief, and most importantly, nothing remotely resembling surprise. Instead, her reaction was going to need to say, wordlessly: “Of course it’s you. Who else would be? Because what you and I have—is unique.”
When their eyes met, Inara had carefully prepared. The woman had her usual dignified air about her, her blonde hair styled fashionably but conservatively. She wore a perfectly tailored dress that set off her eyes nicely.
“Ambassador,” Inara said, reaching out to clasp her hands.
She looked back at Inara expectantly.
* * * *
It was a tough call to make, but it was no one else’s. More than 3,000 settlers requesting transport off-world—3,000 settlers that might already be infected.
It wasn’t very likely that another transport ship would come through to rescue them. With the war closing in on one side, and sickness spreading like wildfire on the other, those left in the middle were faced with trying to make do in a thinner and thinner band of sky.
Deny them transport, and everyone on the planet would likely be infected within a few days. Bring already infected settlers on board her ship and she’d have brought a death sentence not just on her crew but on the inhabitants of wherever she took them. The Alliance’s newest biological weapon wasn’t just undetectable until its final stages, but had a 100% mortality rate.
Her lieutenant looked at her expectantly. “Captain?”
* * * *
When Inara shifted her feet, tired from waiting, her heels made a rough sound on the metal grating. She looked down at her left hand for about the hundredth time. The ring had a satisfying sparkle to it in the low light of the transport station.
She thought she should be feeling more grateful right now, considering how few people were going to make it out of here. The top secret faster-than-light ships were going to take them to entirely different galaxy, a place safe from the plague that was destroying the planets in this solar system one by one.
It wasn’t lost on her that her very low position within the guild, the one that led her to push out past the Core to find work, had made it possible for her to be here now. As the wife of a newly appointed cabinet minister—enough purges and even a mid-level ambassador could move into the top levels of government—she thought she ought to be focused on her future. But her last thoughts in this galaxy were about Serenity; about Kaylee, Simon, and Mal, about a place in her life where relationships weren’t exactly unconditional, but they weren’t rehearsed or choreographed, either.
* * * *
Zoë’s last thought was about Serenity, too, which was odd, considering she’d never loved it like Mal or Kaylee did. Hers wasn’t vivid or articulate like Inara’s, and it wasn’t untinged by the anger she still felt towards Mal. It was something hazy and indistinct, but strong enough to make her forget about the sickness and dying that surrounded her—just the cold shine of the bulkhead, the quiet hum of the engine, the rattle here and there that you’d hear at night as the ship adjusted course, and Wash’s voice calling her from the bridge.
"Personality categories" taken from the Central Intelligence Agency manual, pages G-14 to G-111, quoted in Talal Asad's On Suicide Bombing, pages 103-104 (Columbia University Press, 2007).