|Navigation: Home About News Fiction Links Email|
Chapter posted Oct. 25, 2005
Mal scrolled through the list of entries for a few minutes, trying to decide on a place to start. The beginning seemed as good a place as any, but if Book had left him a message direct it would probably be at the end, 'bout the time the Shepherd had left Serenity for the mining settlement on Haven. And then there was that grouping of dates 'twixt March and May of 2511...
Mal stared through the screen for several moments as the sounds and scents of Serenity Valley rose up around him in echoes. He didn't want to believe that Book could've had anything to do with the hé chùsheng zájiāo de zānghuò who had been behind that slaughter... but the Alliance ident card he'd carried, and the deference paid him by the soldiers aboard the IAV Magellan, spoke to a different theory. Whatever Book had been before he'd become the man Mal had known, he surely hadn't been an Independent.
Mal shook his head, banishing old ghosts back where they belonged, then scrolled back to the top of the list. Whatever Book'd wanted to tell him, to per-maybe-haps soften the blow of what lurked in these files, Mal didn't want to hear it just yet. He'd trusted the older man, gone to him for counsel even after Book had left Serenity, but he still had a notion to check the lie of the land for himself before sussing out what the Shepherd wanted him to parse from it.
He punched up the first entry, dated in early 2480, and began reading as the screen filled with text:
"'Into every generation a Slayer is born, one girl in all the world, a Chosen One. She alone will stand against the forces of darkness; with the strength and skill to stop the spread of their evil and the swell of their numbers.'
Mal jerked back from the screen, a little confused and a lot creepified, unwilling to read one word more. Breaking from the text felt a lot like coming up for air in the midst of danger, like the breath of wind on his face in the cargo bay of Serenity when the S.S. Walden had answered his distress call-- just before the other captain had raised his gun and shot Mal down.
"Wŏ de tiān, a," he muttered, pushing out of the pilot's chair and pacing toward the center of the bridge, where he paused to gaze out into the Black. At first glance the journal entry had seemed a mite pretentious, sort of scholarly in a fēngle kind of way, but by the time he'd got to the part about 'enhancing' and 'living weapons', not to mention all the gŏushĭ about unrest in the border worlds... He could hardly believe such things had ever been written by the man he'd known and trusted. And more'n that, what it might mean for River...
Simon had said that his sister was fourteen or so when the so-called Academy took her. Book had long been in the abbey by that time, but it was a safe bet that the Shepherd at least known about the place. Maybe even recruited other girls for it, what with nigh on thirty years of entries recorded in his journal afore he went to ground. Other girls like River, graceful geniuses taken by people intent on doing all manner of awful things to 'em in the name of making 'em more useful. It was all beginning to form a very ugly picture in Mal's mind, one he didn't want to look at, no more'n he'd wanted to accept what they'd found on Miranda.
How could rational people support something like this? How could Book, enigmatic but powerful good man that Mal had known, have ever had a part in it?
And yet, the warning Book had given him on Haven still echoed in his ears. "Sort of man they're like to send believes hard, kills and never asks why." Had the young man what parroted back his father's legends in the entry Mal had just read been merely misguided? Might he have changed his mind when he fetched up against the real world, then spent his time mitigating the damage others like the Operatives caused until he could take no more of it? Or had Book been remembering his own past with that cryptic reference?
Mal knew which theory he'd like to believe, but he also knew what happened to a man trapped in the maw of that kind of darkness, one every bit as dangerous as what the Reaver survivor he'd once found had looked into. He might as well be dead, for the man what came out the other side of such evil weren't never the same man that went in, even if he managed to pull himself back into the light. And Book had surely been there; between the clues he'd let fall during their voyage together, and the bits Mal had just read, there weren't no other conclusion to be reached. But if that were so, what event had Book fetched up against to turn him from true believer in the Alliance to itinerant preacher?
Thoughts swirled chaotically in his mind, soon drowned out once more by the echoes that never seemed to leave him of his very own crucible of faith. How long he stood there before ZoŽ interrupted him, he couldn't have said.
"Wŏ de mā."
Mal jerked his gaze away from the stars, a bit startled that he hadn't heard anyone coming, and found himself meeting his second's disturbed gaze over the pilot's console. She must've come up to ask him-- he'd been intending to given her the details of the job after dinner-- and had spotted the open file.
"Is this what it looks like, sir?" she said, in an intense, angry tone of voice that fit in all too well with the reminiscing he'd been doing.
"If it looks to you like the good Shepherd found a way to dump all his qīngwā cào de secrets unlooked for on my shoulders after I'd given up on ever hearing 'em, then I'd say you've got the right of it. Haven't read more than the one entry yet; not sure I want to. If there's anything in there that could've been used to help River..."
"Guĭ," she muttered under her breath, lips pressed into a grim line. "Where'd you come by this?"
"That package I got, the one I didn't share with the crew? Came from Southdown Abbey. Packed full of books, with the 'wave tape there tucked in all casual-like. Had no idea what might be on it."
"You going to tell the others?"
Right to the point, his ZoŽ. "Not yet. Don't know what else might be on there; could be we're gettin' the wrong idea."
"But you don't think we are."
"No I don't." He sighed. "No, I don't."
She looked away then, one of her hands drifting up to ghost lightly over the back of the triceratops sitting above the reader screen. "Goin' to lead us on another fēngle crusade?"
Mal winced. "Might be too late for that now. Last entry on there is months old." He shook his head, dragging his mind back to the present with an effort. "Got other business in mind. Spoke with Sir Warwick this morning."
"Sir Warwick?" ZoŽ blinked and looked up at him again, jarred out of her sour mood. "Thought you said never again, sir."
"I said never again with cows. Didn't say nothin' about cows-to-be."
Her eyebrows climbed up her forehead at that, and Mal tried hard not to smile at it. Little enough surprised her after all this time. "Man's lookin' to improve his herd, and he heard a fella on Osiris is breedin' some damn fine beeves. We're to pick up some seed stock, suppose you'd call it, in a cryo container."
The eyebrows came down again at that in disapproval. "Osiris?" she frowned. "That's deep-Core territory."
"And we happen to have ourselves a freshly-washed, spankin' clean record. Thought we might take advantage of that, 'fore it gets tarnished up again." The Operative had been thorough, Mal would give him that; even the five occasions on which Mal himself had been bound by law for one smuggling-related charge or another had all disappeared from regular Cortex and military databases alike.
She nodded slowly, as always picking up what he wasn't saying as well as what he was. "And I suppose it wouldn't hurt to give Simon and River a chance to drop in on their family, see how the land lies now their warrants have been revoked."
"Suppose it wouldn't," Mal replied, agreeably.
She sighed. "You know it ain't goin' to go smooth," she said, in a resigned tone.
She shook her head at him one more time, then turned and strolled off the bridge, favoring the console screen with one last wary glance before disappearing down the stairwell.
"Never does," Mal repeated to himself, and gazed back out into the Black.
hé chùsheng zájiāo de zānghuò = "filthy fornicators of livestock"
© 2005 Jedi Buttercup.