Mal never thought there’d be a time when Zoe wouldn’t have his back.
And she still does, in some ways. Still comes with him on the few jobs they do between raids; still handles the perimeter when they hit an Alliance outpost.
But whenever they get back to Serenity, Zoe becomes as much of a ghost as Wash; just disappears. The others notice but nobody (not even Mal) blames her.
It leaves a gap in leadership that needs to be filled, and ever the soldier Mal grooms River for the position, if only because she takes to it so naturally. She helps him pilot Serenity and they take time out for training exercises, hand to hand combat where she lays him out more often than not.
Simon keeps a watchful eye on them while Kaylee sits beside him, swinging her legs over the cavernous space of Serenity’s belly and teasing him in turns.
Ever since the broad wave Mal sent out, he and his crew have a shiny target painted on them, one the Alliance isn’t interested in ever removing. Hiding out on backwaters and away from any jobs reeked of nihilism too much for Mal’s taste, so when he got a wave from an old commander asking him to enlist again, he jumped at the chance.
It was the first, and last, time he ever took a vote from his crew.
Serenity’s got more than a bitty cannon attached to her now; the Independents outfitted her well. Twin cannons balance below each of the shuttles and River’s rigged up another that sits behind the bridge, switches to autofire on her command.
The little girl’s got a talent for death Mal feels uncomfortable admiring, but does anyway.
(Serenity tests well the first time they skirmish with an Alliance ship – in the blaze of gunfire River holds her steady while Mal and Jayne take the cannons. They’re all marked men now, but it’s more honest this way.)
Mal’s no good at taking orders anymore, not since he was left for dead, but the commission status of his crew works out well in the newly ignited war. The Independents fight like they always have and Mal still does the job and gets paid, but he’s not putting his crew at risk any more than he already has. Some things never change.
Get in, get out, get paid.
He’s learned by now, leadership’s just a word for the first man to get killed.
Mal takes a job on the Rim, gives River the coordinates and while she sets up the cloaking shield he goes over the job with Zoe and Jayne. Kaylee hovers by River; the mechanic’s part in this means keeping them invisible as long as she’s able.
The target’s an Alliance laboratory where it’s rumored they test peoples’ brains, implant them with suggestions and false realities. It’s not unlike the place where River was kept, so Simon goes over the schematic of the old facility with Mal, tense shoulders inches apart.
No costumes this time though. They’re just going in guns blazing.
Zoe’s silent on the drop but does her job – runs the perimeter and follows Mal into the heart of the lab where few scientists want to risk their lives for a government plan. War’s funny like that – makes folk realize what they’re willing to die for.
The job is just to find out what the Alliance is hiding, but the place is a maze, all white walls and levels leading to more levels. Mal sends Zoe off in one direction with Jayne and barrels down an empty looking corridor. She’s on the comm and can hear him, but he’s not expecting trouble at this juncture.
Something makes him take pause, a gut feeling he’s learned to obey, at an ordinary looking door at an indistinguishable part of the hallway, and his hand drifts over the handle. Mal checks both ways before he shrugs and slides the door open.
It’s a dimly lit room with blue lights swinging in the darkness, but even with so little to see by, Mal realizes what’s inside the vertical coffins.
People, suspended in time and their own minds, dead to the verse and to him.
I don’t know what they did to her, Simon’s voice echoes in his head.
Mal guesses it’s something like this.
He takes a walk around the room, looking at the people whose lives are gone, sacrificed under some promise or wish that will never be realized (not in this life).
Just as Mal’s made the full circle, ready to get the hell out of here, when a blonde woman close to him opens her eyes and gasps against the glass, choking on the liquid suspending her.