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Going to Ground

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For all he'd spent the first twenty-odd years of his life planet-bound, Malcolm Reynolds was very much a creature of the Black. Over the decade and more he'd spent ferrying goods of dubious legality from one rock to the next, he'd become more'n a little attached to the vast, jeweled emptiness of it. Unlike land, which could be bought or burned out from under a man's boots, the Black was ungovernable, untamable and free. The view from the pilot's chair had become as comfortable to him as an old blanket, the background noise of the ship's workings like the beat of his own heart.

Mayhap that was why he found the new engines so unsettling. It weren't natural, the way space streaked and threaded by in shifting shades of lavender and blue; it weren't right, the way the decks went all quiet when the Firefly's engine switched off in favor of the new drive's power core. Threw all the established ship's rhythms out of whack.

Seemed like to be a permanent change, too, the way Mal conjured it. From what their current passenger had to say, there were hundreds, even thousands of inhabited worlds out there with no notion the Alliance even existed; the very idea of all those independent, virtually untapped markets, far out of reach of the long arm of the law, seemed a very shiny alternative to the precarious living they'd been eking out since Miranda. Didn't nobody want to hire a boat as famous as Serenity had become; even with her record cleared, they were an obvious target for every patrol ship as happened by, and half their longtime customers were dead or out of business.

Before they could make any firm plans for the future, however, they had to ferry Mr. Davis-- a fugitive who might or might not actually answer to that name-- to the outcolony of Atlantis. Way he told it, that world was the shining star of human culture in this region of space, one of many settlements as still had contact with a living Earth. Government, of course, claimed different, saying the strangers who'd come bearing such wondrous gifts had settled there from ships lost on the generations-long journey from humanity's dying homeworld. Weren't many could argue with that, since Parliament were doing their damnedest to keep the new transport technology limited to Alliance ships, but some few had slipped through the cracks, like Davis and the bootleg drive parts he'd brought as part payment of his passage. Mal was inclined to believe him, especially given River's agreement, but there was still that niggling bit of worry until they'd seen-- and survived-- the proof of it themselves.

Mal glanced toward the co-pilot's chair at that thought, automatically checking to see if River had picked up on his current line of thinking, then frowned as he realized her seat was empty. She'd slipped out at some point while he'd been staring out the windows and he hadn't noticed her absence, as used as he was to the companionable quiet they often shared when both had trouble sleeping and were of a mind to gaze out at the stars. Ordinarily that wouldn't be a problem, but they were scheduled to drop out over Davis' city in less than an hour and he wanted their best pilot at the controls in the event fancy maneuvers were required.

She knew that, too. Something else must have come up, then, something he suspected he weren't going to like.

"Gūyáng zhōng de gūyáng," he muttered under his breath, then checked the autopilot and got up to go looking for her.

He didn't have to go far. The crew were mostly either in their quarters or the cargo bay, busy with preparations; Davis and Inara had been the only ones without a task to look to, and when he'd gone forward he'd left them sharing a cup of tea at the kitchen table. Man had been surprisingly skittish of her when he'd first come aboard, but he'd warmed up to her after a few days, and they'd spent the rest of the journey talking over Core politics and differing customs and a host of other topics as bored the rest of the crew to tears. She'd apparently gone back to her shuttle at some point that morning, however, for it weren't 'Nara seated beside Davis now.

"Somethin' goin' on here that I need to know about?" Mal asked pointedly, watching River's face as she looked up at his arrival.

She was pale-- paler than usual-- and her dark eyes were wide and haunted with shadows he'd not seen since before they'd lost Wash. "They know," she said, heartbreak clear in her voice.

"Know what?" he asked gruffly, heart sinking into his boots.

"That I've left the system, apparently," their guest interrupted grimly.

Mal dragged his attention reluctantly from River to scowl at the other man. Davis had been wearing some kind of pale blue shirt when he'd arrived with a darker jacket and trousers that had looked suspiciously military to Mal's eye despite their lack of adornment; he'd borrowed bits and pieces from Simon during the journey to pad his wardrobe a bit, but he'd put the original uniform back on today, and it soured Mal's stomach to look at it. Too reminiscent of what he'd fought against for so long, despite the fact that it were navy and not purple. "Your people? Or the Alliance?" he asked sharply, wondering again just what they were about to get themselves into.

"The Alliance, of course," Davis replied, calmly. "It was always a concern, but I'd hoped to reach Atlantis before they realized I'd escaped their grasp and decided to attempt more drastic measures to keep me from warning my people. Your ship isn't quite large enough to run the hyperdrive at full power, especially with all the jury-rigging required to interface it with this technology, but I thought we'd have more time before they discovered the way to the city and moved to cut me off. I was the only one of the diplomatic team that knew more than the basic Gate address; they must have found another source of information."

Mal parsed that thought for a moment. "So they've got there ahead of us," he concluded, frowning. "Wouldn't be the first time. You got another planet we can go to?"

"They know about Miranda," River interrupted unsteadily, as if Davis hadn't already answered Mal's question.

Davis turned to her with a puzzled frown, and Mal sighed. It had been a long time since the girl had had one of her bad spells, and this was mighty inconvenient timing. They'd been to some effort not to let their guest pick up on her strangenesses, not knowing how he'd react nor whether he'd use the information against them.

"'Course they know about Miranda, River," Mal said, shortly. "They saw the tape we broadcast, just like everyone else; if they didn't know about it before, they know now."

"Not them," she said, shaking her head. Then she lifted a finger and pointed past him, toward the crazed view he'd left behind on the bridge. "Them."

"His people, you mean?" Mal frowned, jerking his chin in Davis' direction. "Now why would the Alliance tell them about that? Don't exactly paint 'em in the best light." Hadn't even taken them a week to come up with an excuse for the public back home, whitewashing over the effects of the Pax as the pet project of a rogue and long-dead scientist. Still, it didn't seem like something they'd talk about with folks as they was trying to make a good impression on. "Unless..."

A horrible suspicion formed in his mind, one that River's answering nod did nothing to dispel. "Lăotiānyé," he blurted, aghast.

"I don't understand," Davis said, glancing back and forth between them. "One of the men who interrogated me mentioned that name in passing, but refused to explain. Who is Miranda?"

"Ain't a who," Mal answered without looking at him. "It's a where. And what was done there. You sure about this, River?"

"Two by two, hands of blue," she whispered, lifting her own hands from the table's surface to stare at them. "All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten them."

Davis started a little at that. "What's done cannot be undone," he said obliquely, staring at her with a concerned expression, then turned that perturbed gaze on Mal. "Is she a telepath, or a seer?" he asked, sharply. "I know it's none of my business, but I've seen stranger things before, and if there's a chance that whatever she's seeing hasn't happened yet..."

Mal wasn't sure what exactly Davis meant by the terms he'd used, but the gist of the question was clear enough. "She's a reader," he replied, reluctantly. "Sees into the truth of things. If she says a thing is so, then it's so."

"Then I think it's time someone told me about Miranda," Davis said, an unmistakable note of command in his voice.

Definitely military, Mal thought sourly. Officer, no doubt. But there was nothing for it; man probably wouldn't give them a new destination otherwise, and there was no way Mal was landing his boat where there was a chance the crew might be affected.

"It's a planet," he said, his voice clipped as he took a seat at the head of the table. "One of the furthest out in the system. History books call it a black rock, but it weren't always that way..."

Mal told the short version, best he could, starting with what Parliament had ordered done and the war that had come after, then skipped forward to River's so-called education, what she'd learned in the Academy, and where it had led them. He made no mention of his own war experience, save that he'd been on the other side of the conflict, nor of Serenity's many adventures where they didn't directly concern either River's abilities or the Operative's pursuit, but he said enough.

Davis was pale by the time he'd finished, face wiped clean of expression. "This toxin," he said, slowly. "This... g-paxilon hydrochlorate. If someone released it in the center of the city..."

"Almost all of 'em would have gone to sleep," Mal said. "Not sure how long it would take--"

Simon spoke up, then; he'd joined them at some point during the explanation, seating himself on the other side of his sister. "A few days, perhaps; a few hours, if they've improved on the formula since they found out what it was truly capable of. And the ones who didn't--"

Between Simon and Davis, River shook her head, wildly. Long dark hair whipped around her, and there was a wild, pinched expression on her face, a franticness Mal remembered all too well from the last time they'd gone up against Reavers. Simon tried to wrap an arm around her shoulders, murmuring something soothing, but she shook it off with an impatient glare.

"No," she said, tremulously. "Not all. Only half. They've rewritten themselves, so many of them, so they can talk to Her-- but she failed them. She failed them, and now they're so full of rage..." She trailed off, hiding her face behind her hair.

"Rewritten themselves?" Davis said, staring at her. "So they could..." His eyes widened, and he'd gone even paler, if that were possible. "The DNA treatments. The ATA gene..."

"Don't know about any of that," Mal said, grimly. "But if half your city's gone and turned into Reavers, my boat ain't goin' nowhere near there. Lost my pilot last time we fought 'em, and gorram near lost the rest of my crew into the bargain. Hundreds of innocent people died. I'd rather not join 'em."

"But..." Davis tried to interrupt him, half rising from his chair.

Mal shook his head, firmly. "Reavers ain't people no more, Davis. They're predators. They'll kill you soon as look at you, and if they still got any ability to communicate, they don't waste it on their food. And that's all we are to them-- food. Entertainment. They're still smart enough to fly ships, and they're smart enough to knock us out of orbit if your city's got much in the way of heavy arms. I'd rather not take the risk."

"It does," Davis said, swallowing hard as he sank back into his seat. "But the air processors-- the city has a containment system. Even if this Pax affected everyone in the city almost immediately, which I find hard to believe given the city's size, the automated systems would have cleared it out of the air sooner rather than later. The SGC would have sent someone to check it out when the weekly databurst didn't come through-- they wouldn't just leave the city potentially in enemy hands."

"The SGC?" Zoe asked, coming into the room from the stairwell to the cargo bay. "First we've heard that name. Thought you said your colonies weren't subject to an interplanetary government."

Mal shot her a glance, and she nodded her head in the direction of the bridge. He checked his chrono, then nodded and got up from his seat. "I done told you about Miranda. Seems there's some things you need to be tellin' us, as well, if you want us to drop you anywhere but out the airlock. Ain't goin' to be here, though. Not if there's like to be Reavers about."

"Wait, please!" Davis objected, speaking quickly. "The coordinates I gave you are a short distance out from the planet's orbit; I didn't want to risk someone firing on us if we came out of hyperspace too close to the city and you had trouble interfacing with Atlantis' communications systems. Just-- give it a few minutes, all right? Just to be sure. I wasn't lying when I said most of the human worlds out here aren't subject to Earth-- only Atlantis is a direct outpost." He swallowed, pausing briefly, then sighed, seeming to have come to a decision. "The city contains the only gateway to Earth in this galaxy, and the Alliance knows that; if Atlantis has fallen, it will take weeks, or maybe even months, to get there by ship to warn my superiors of the threat posed by the Alliance."

"In this galaxy?" Mal blurted, eyebrows raised. Davis had said something about temporal dislocation that Mal hadn't been sure whether to believe-- that Londinium and Sihnon had somehow been settled four hundred years before the date the colony ships were supposed to have left Earth-that-Was-- but hadn't nothing been said about different galaxies.

"It would have taken our ancestors millions of years to cross a gulf of that size without the capability for faster than light travel," Simon objected, brows wrinkled up in a frown. "It isn't possible."

"It is," Davis insisted. "I don't have a copy of the report my team presented to your Parliament, and science isn't my area of expertise, but the short version is that there are races in this galaxy far older than humanity, and some of them have been running experiments on our ancestors for more than ten thousand years. Please, just trust me on this. If I don't make contact with the city, several billion lives may be at risk."

Mal scowled at him, misliking the entire situation, but unable to argue with the man's plea. "Tāmā de. If I find out you're lyin' to me," he said, "you'll regret it for the rest of your very short life." He waited for the man's nod, then continued. "And it ain't my Parliament." On that note, he turned his attention to River, and jerked his chin toward the bridge. "You up to this, little albatross?"

She nodded shakily, then slipped out of her chair and padded up to the bridge, leaving her boots under the kitchen table. Mal watched her go, then nodded again at Zoe. "Think I'll follow her up there, handle communications," he said, gruffly. "Get Jayne, and get yourselves armed; I'll want you in the cargo bay, ready to go in case we do make contact. Simon-- you gather up Kaylee and go to 'Nara's; you get yourselves away if we look to be in trouble."

"But-- where would we go?" Simon asked, shrugging helplessly.

"Cross that bridge when we come to it," Mal said. Then he turned back to Davis. "You comin'?"

Davis nodded. "Of course." He picked up his half-full teacup, tossed it back like there was something a good deal more interesting in it than tea, then stood and followed River. Mal waited for him to pass, then went up after him, gesturing him into the spare seat behind the co-pilot's chair before seating himself at the main console. River was already flipping through the disengagement sequence for the new drive, and Mal held his breath as he waited for them to revert to normal space.

Weren't natural, the way the stars blurred suddenly into being, their pattern unlike anything he knew from home. Mal stared out at the blue dot of the planet they'd been searching for, small enough at this distance to cover with an outstretched thumb, then shook his head and began searching the communications bands for a compatible signal. Davis had given them the most likely range of frequencies, and it didn't take long to hit paydirt.

"...Identify yourselves," a stern male voice said as the vidscreen above the pilot's console came to life. A balding man in an olive green jumpsuit looked out of the image, mouth set in stern lines. "I repeat, this is Colonel Caldwell of the Daedalus..."

Davis had lurched up out of his seat into camera range the moment the communications system had activated, sparing Mal a bare glance to ask permission, and Mal gave River a nod as he activated the connection on their end. She turned her chair slightly toward their passenger, unobtrusively dropping one hand to the gun secured beneath the chair, and listened as Davis began to speak.

"Colonel Caldwell, this is Lieutenant Colonel Paul Davis aboard the independent transport ship, Serenity," their guest announced in urgent tones.

The balding man's eyebrows shot up at that, and he leaned forward, as if scrutinizing the return transmission for accuracy. "Colonel Davis? The Anglo-Sino Alliance reported your entire diplomatic party lost some months ago in a shipwreck. We've had cause since to be suspicious of their motives, but nothing to suggest whether any of you survived."

"The entire thing was a setup," Davis replied, smiling grimly. "Their Parliament ordered us taken into custody as soon as they had what they wanted-- the working hyperdrive prototypes-- and had us isolated and interrogated. At last report, the rest of my team was still alive, but the underground movement that helped me to escape wasn't able to reach any of the others. I'll provide a full report as soon as I can, but first I need to speak with Dr. Weir."

"Unfortunately, Dr. Weir is unavailable at present," Caldwell said, a haunted look creeping into his eyes as he shook his head. "Dr. McKay is temporarily in charge of the city."

If that weren't a man had seen Reavers, Mal would be very much surprised-- and from the way Davis was nodding, it seemed he agreed.

"I'd had word that the Alliance might have attacked the city with a potentially lethal chemical weapon after I escaped," Davis replied.

"Dr. McKay and Colonel Sheppard will be able to tell you more," Caldwell said, nodding. "I'll beam you over, and send you down directly to the infirmary-- I'm sure Dr. Beckett will want to check you over, and I suggest you give whatever information you might have about the chemical weapon to him immediately. He's had to keep all of the victims locked up in isolation rooms or in stasis, and he's been having some difficulty trying to come up with a cure."

"Wait," Davis countered him, raising a hand. "I can do better than that-- there's a doctor aboard who's had Alliance medical training, and he's seen the effects of the chemical first hand. There are other crew members with valuable information about the Alliance, as well; I'd like permission for the ship to land so they can meet with Dr. McKay and whoever else is currently in charge."

Caldwell seemed a little taken aback by that, and to tell the truth, so was Mal; he hadn't expected Davis to volunteer Mal's crew that way. 'Course, neither had he expected to need such endorsement just to land. Had this Caldwell just expected him to move on without a resupply?

Davis continued before Caldwell could come up with an objection. "I'll vouch for their behavior, sir; I truly believe their assistance will be invaluable."

Caldwell paused, then nodded, reluctantly. "I'll clear your landing with the control tower," he said. "The east pier's currently available; have your pilot set down there when you arrive. I'll advise Dr. McKay in person of your arrival. Caldwell out."

The image winked out, and Mal gave their guest a long, wary look. "Now why do I get the feelin' we've just gone from the frying pan into the fire?"

"I wasn't lying," Davis replied, meeting his eyes fearlessly. "We could really use your help. I spent most of my time in your system either in meetings with Parliament, imprisoned, or aboard your ship, and--" he paused and glanced at River, "--I have a feeling your advice will be a lot more helpful than mine, if my people are to successfully rescue the other members of my diplomatic team and fix the mistake we made when we offered the Alliance our hyperdrive technology in the first place. And of course I'll arrange for you to be compensated for your trouble."

Mal considered that a minute. "I'll talk it over with Zoe, but I make no promises."

He already knew what she was going to say, of course. Only was one real option, here, less'n they wanted to invite trouble they might not be able to get out of. Still, the formalities had to be observed.

Mal just hoped they wouldn't be given cause to regret it.