Moment of Clarity
by Runaway Scrape
Disclaimer: Firefly, its characters, settings, and whatnot are the property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, and 20th Century Fox. No misappropriation or profit is intended. This is only an exercise intended to amuse and/or provoke thought.
Author's Notes: The story Shraddha tells is the story of the Tannenhauser, which I had once heard a long time ago, and then came across in Barbara (May her name be blessed) Hambly's Traveling with the Dead. Shraddha, the name, means "faith," which I felt was appropriate to this story. The idea for this story came from Objects in Space, and the comment River "overheard" from Book.
It was black, without any texture or depth or direction. The air had gotten stale, and from the smell, the body beside him had grown ripe. How had she managed it? Without fear or grief or uncertainty. He was certain she'd been smiling when her heart had finally given out. A person couldn't be buried under that much rubble for that long and come out alive. Well, for that matter, neither would he.
The pocket that held them had seemed claustrophobic at first, but now it was enormous. He could sense no limits to the isolation he was in. He was destroyed, his men were dead, or scattered, or captured, and God help them; he couldn't. He couldn't even help himself.
Had he been so wrong? His men had adored him. They'd been the tightest knit squad the Alliance could call on. Trouble? Send him and his boys in. They'd sort it out. They were the best at what they did, and with the browncoats stirring dissention in the colony worlds, they were called upon all too often. Go in, sort things out with a few judicious assassinations, a full-scale massacre, some well-placed detonations, and what had been a region about to reach boiling point descended into the kind of chaos the Alliance could stroll into and put to rights.
His head hurt. What had she said? When he'd recovered consciousness and seen his executive officer's body in little bits, the bunker collapsed around them, and her – pinned beneath several tons of concrete and earth. He'd been ready to kill her right then, and she'd said, "I forgive you. He forgives you."
"What have we got?" he asked striding past the guards into the bunker.
His XO caught up with him, a slight smile on her face. "Civilian, found her in the northern restricted zone. Had some contraband on her – nothing much, but she might be our goldmine."
He ducked into the back corridor. The bunker they'd secured was small, grubby, and half underground. He liked it that way. A low profile meant they got in there, did their job, and got out. No muss, no fuss. His men knew exactly what he wanted, and they delivered.
Inside one of the tiny cubicles given over to interrogations, the civilian sat. He was singularly unimpressed. She was short, dumpy, and probably couldn't see too well without the glasses one of his soldiers had confiscated from her. Along with layers of rough corduroy and calico, she had a badly knitted shawl, and from a thin chain around her neck hung a silver cross.
He grabbed one of the chairs, reversed it and sat down, smiling at her. She should have been scared out of her wits, but she met his gaze with a steady look of her own. His XO handed him a rucksack, which he upended on the table.
"Rationed food bars, GPS readout, full-spectrum antibiotics. I'd say you were giving aid and comfort to the enemy."
She met his eyes, but didn't answer.
"I was on my way to a family directly across the restricted zone from New Rhodesia. Their daughter is sick, and they're short on supplies. I took a shortcut to get to them faster."
"Across a valley crawling with browncoat insurgents? I don't think so."
"I don't bother them, they don't bother me. It's my duty to care for those in need." For the first time, she shifted. "If I'm to be charged, could you go ahead and draw up the paperwork and transfer me? I'd like to contact my neighbor so he can arrange counsel and feed my animals."
"We're not the authorities," he answered. "And you won't be going anywhere. Ever."
It took a moment for the penny to drop. The men around her certainly had the posture and manner of soldiers, but they wore no uniforms. Their weapons, to the casual eye, might be similar to what the browncoats carried, but to anyone educated in weaponry, they were cutting edge and well cared for. There was no juryrigging, no irregular caliber, no mismatched pieces, no field repairs. The bunker was enough to conceal and protect – nothing more.
"What are you?" she asked.
"Not really what you need to be worried about right now," he answered. "Let me give you a run down of what's going to happen. You're going to be interrogated. Now, if you're lucky, you know something and you tell us immediately. Otherwise, we'll use the tools at our disposal – drugs, torture, rape – to get at what you know. When we're done, you'll be taken out back, one of my men will put a bullet in your head, and your troubles will be over. There's no getting around this. So, your choices are pretty much down to how little you want to suffer."
He was telling the truth. Other black ops commanders he'd worked with might lie, might leave some shred of hope. He'd found that by arming his captives with the basic facts, his work was half done before he even started. The woman pressed her lips together, blinked back tears, and murmured something.
"I'm sorry, what was that?" he asked, cupping his right ear.
She closed her eyes. "I said, 'oh, Lord, if it be Your will, let this cup pass from me.'"
He laughed. "Number One, you go and tell Jenkins I owe him on that bet. We've got a live one down here."
She was starting to cry, but she managed to do it without noise. "What you're doing is terribly wrong."
"Just my job," he answered, pleased that she wasn't going to be a screamer. Another soldier came in and murmured a report in his ear, something damned frustrating.
"I haven't done anything wrong," the woman said, but with a despair all too realistic.
"I don't give half a hump if you're innocent or not," he snapped. "So where does that leave you?"
There was no telling how the browncoats had found them. He doubted anyone had gotten sloppy. Probably, it was just rotten luck. Maybe someone in the Alliance naval command had given them up – a bribe or blackmail. It really didn't matter. The first charge detonated directly on top of the bunker. His men scattered for cover, but within a second or two, more charges rained down on them, obliterating the walls, and turning the world to blood-churned mud. His XO had been directly in front of him, on her way out the curtain covered doorway when a blast caught her full on. He was knocked back and to the side, and the roof caved in. Something hit his head, and the lights went out.
"What?" he demanded.
"I forgive you," she said again. Her voice was soft and strained. She was in pain.
He fumbled at his belt, tasting blood in his mouth. It was pitch black, and there was no noise – both very bad signs. Finally, he found his torch and clicked it on. They'd somehow lucked out. A wall had fallen over them, only to be caught against a huge chunk of fallen ceiling. They were trapped in a cozy hollow. His head was killing him.
He swept his light over the space. The woman lay on her side. Debris covered her up to her chest. Behind him, the doorway was crumbled into stones larger than his head and packed together so tightly, he couldn't fit his fingers into the crevices. His executive officer was mostly a random spray of charred bits – some bone there, part of a boot here, a couple of fingers over yon. For a second, he thought he might be sick. Sandoval. He'd selected her himself and trained her.
"I'm so sorry," the woman said.
Incredulous, he turned the light on her. She was pale, probably from both shock and blood loss. She was not, however, delirious. His expression must have stood in for whatever question he couldn't begin to articulate.
"She worked for you, didn't she?" the woman asked. "She was special."
They were buried, and a quick inspection told him that it was probably yards deep. They would not be getting out. Ever.
"Why are you the man you are?" she asked.
"What made you into this?"
He was still incredulous. She was dying. He'd told her as much. Both of her legs were broken, and she was bleeding somewhere under the debris that he couldn't get to. In a manner of speaking, she was the lucky one. At most, she'd last a day before kicking off. Him, he was in for quite the wait. It would be thirst, or maybe starvation, that got him. He couldn't even find his weapon to speed things up.
He hadn't talked much to her. What was the use, after all? That didn't, unfortunately, stop her from talking to him.
"Why are you the way you are?" she tried again.
"You have got to be joking," he turned his head toward her. "What could it possibly matter now?"
"It matters now more than ever," she responded, reaching out to him. Her fingers could just brush his knee. He didn't respond to her touch. "I'm dying, but you're so much worse off."
For a second, he couldn't find the words, then he burst out in mocking laughter. "You're . . . you're trying to save me? Are you out of your mind?"
She shook her head and coughed painfully. "No, that's . . . that's out of my hands, and not my responsibility anyways."
"I . . . you're in so much pain. I want to help. It's just that I don't have much time left."
He was going to lose count of the number of times he was stumped by her. She was completely serious.
"You're dying – from blood loss, shock, septicaemia, rhabdomyelosis, or whatever – and your big worry is that you can't kiss my hurts and make them better?"
She smiled at him.
Again, he was confounded. "What exactly do you think is going to happen?"
"I'm going home, is all. Nothing to fear in that."
"Home," he laughed bitterly. There had been no such thing as home for him for quite some time. What he'd built to take its place had just been blown to smithereens by the browncoats' attack.
"There's an old saying," she whispered. "Home is the place that, when you have to go there, they have to take you in."
He laughed again, the sound small and bleak.
"It's more than that, though," she continued. "There's no 'have to' about it. Only love and joy."
"Woman, if you think for a second there's a chance in Hell for me to do anything other than die, rot, and be forgotten, you're crazy."
She smiled. Damn her eyes, she smiled at him. And there was nowhere for him to go, nothing for him to look at but her and some rubble, no sounds other than her quiet voice.
"You love your men," she said. "That counts for something."
"And I've killed more men, women, and children than I'll ever be able to count," he snapped at her. "I've killed, I've tortured, I've destroyed. Now try telling me I'll find that gorram love and joy you're yammering about."
She didn't answer for a long moment. Her breathing was becoming a little uneven. But she didn't give up. "He didn't seek out saints, you know. He sought the company of killers, prostitutes, even tax collectors, because they were the ones who needed Him, and they were the ones who let His teachings into their hearts."
He made a rude noise.
She struggled a bit, under the rubble, trying to move a limb to relieve pressure on something else, but there was nothing to be done. "There's another story I can tell you," she murmured, her face white with pain. "Will you listen?"
"Do I have a choice?" he asked, nastily.
"Of course you do. We all do. You could have killed me the moment you woke up. You didn't."
He had no answer to that. As he sat in the silence, the torch flickering as its power cells died, it seemed the weight of the earth was settling in around him. He remembered a tale of priestesses who, having forsaken their vows, were shut into tombs with a little bread and water, waiting in the darkness.
"In the days of Earth That Was, there was a man," she said, her voice growing weaker. "He was a terrible man, a sinner, a killer, a man whose evil heart weighed him down and bent his back. One day, repenting of his life, he walked the road from his village all the way to the Holy City, where the Father of the Faith lived. He went there and asked to speak to the Father, saying that only the holiest man of the Holy City could hear and forgive his sins.
"He had to wait a long time, but finally, he was given an audience with the Father. During his time in the Father's offices, he poured his heart out, emptied it, and told of all the terrible things he did. He wept in genuine contrition, and his words took hours to be spoken to completion. The Father, on hearing them, rose up in a rage, took his staff, and beat the man.
"'Monster!' he yelled. 'My staff is more likely to put forth flowers than you are ever to find forgiveness!'
"With that, he called the guards and had them throw the man out of the Holy City. The man, bereft of hope, returned to his village and resumed his old ways of wickedness. The Father, though, one morning, awoke to find his staff – the same with which he'd beaten the sinner – covered in fragrant blossoms, though it was the middle of winter."
The story had taken much out of her. Scooting to her side, he felt her wrist and found that her pulse had become weak and uneven. It wouldn't be long now.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. "It's a great deal to ask…"
"Would you hold my hand?"
"I thought you weren't afraid of going home," he said, but he took her hand all the same.
"Not that part," she said, her lips making the barest nudge of a smile. "But starting the trip, I'm frightened."
He sat, watching her as the light of the torch became dimmer and dimmer.
"What's your name?" he asked.
"Shraddha," she replied, then took a wavering breath. "Yours?"
He told her.
"You know," she whispered, pain etching her face, "you're not alone. You're never alone. All of us, we fail, but we're not alone."
She exhaled, and he waited for her to take another breath. The wait lengthened from a moment to a minute, and her hand in his lost the last of its clasp. She had died.
It was black, without any texture or depth. The air was stale, and from the smell of it, the body beside him had gotten ripe. He was utterly lost – damned, a whisper in his mind told him. He felt as hopeless as the man in Shraddha's story. The torch had died not long after she had, and he had no sense at all of space or time. He could have been buried for years. He was thirsty and hungry, and there wasn't a thing to be done about it. He had finally found a weapon – a knife – that he could use when he'd finally decided it was time.
Instead, though, he found himself thinking of his men and the missions they'd gone on. There had been the raid on Liang Ho. He had shot a fourteen year old boy in the face in front of his mother, because the woman had been an informer for the browncoats. His men had laughed about it afterwards, about how quickly the woman had broken once her boy was dead. There were the guerilla attacks they'd staged on Shadow, framing the browncoats for the murder and arson of a whole town. They'd even spent a few weeks on Buggered, digging around for an Alliance governor who'd turned coats and joined the rebels.
And at the time, it had been the best time of his life – surrounded by the men and women he'd hand picked and trained, whose minds were sharp as a knife blade's edge. The whole of it was a game, a challenge to be tried and won, and then a party as he and his soldiers relaxed, debauched, and drank.
And they were gone. Sandoval, Li, both Smiths, Guevarra, Ho, Surovic, and three dozen others. Wiped off the face of the 'verse, as if they had never existed, as if he had never existed. The only proof of his life was the bodies he'd left in a trail miles wide.
He realized his face was wet with tears.
What have I done? he asked silently, looking up as though there were some answer in the tenebrous silence. There wasn't even any way to make it up. He was sealed in this tomb to meet his death, and there wasn't a soul to say 'I'm sorry' to. There was no one to go to and explain, no one to reach and ask 'how do I make reparations'? He knew, though, that if there were, he would only make noises about his job and his duty and his loyalty to the Alliance, how there were always those who did his work, but he made sure he did it better and more cleanly than anyone else.
He wept with a feeling of loss as if his heart were being pulled from his chest. The faces and voices of those he'd killed seemed to echo in the tiny void he huddled in. The boy's name, he remembered, was Isaac. Isaac's mother was Louise. She had died at the hands of Sandoval, shot in the back of the head shortly before they left. Couldn't leave loose ends. There were others, so many others. Men who'd died on the battlefield, people he'd ordered killed from an orbiting warship, others who'd died by his hand. He curled his hands in front of him, unable to see them, and felt they were an abomination. He would just as soon have cut them off because of what he'd done with them.
He wept until it seemed there were no more tears in his body, and as his breathing eased, a silence fell on him. He was empty, he felt, empty as a dusty glass. The shell of his body remained, and his mind, but inside there was only silence and a sense of tiredness. It seemed to him then to be very right that he should be there, in the dark, in the quiet, beside Shraddha's body.
He would die, and perhaps that would be the end of it. Or perhaps there was a home to return to, and because he had to go there, they had to take him in. Then, he thought, he could speak his grief and be comforted. Then, perhaps, he could wash the blood from his hands, and they would be clean once more. Then, just maybe, he could make amends for what he had done.
He never knew if it was the sound of clattering stones or the fresh current of air that woke him. His eyes opened, and a flare of pain stabbed him. There was light, and in that collapsed sepulcher, it glared hideously brightly. He covered his eyes for a few minutes until they adapted to it. The thin stream of cold air that leaked in brushed his face and stirred the dust around him. It brought a reminder of just how awful the smell in that little place had been.
Finally, when he was able to see properly, he looked. There was a chink, six inches past his foot and up in a crevice he had not seen before. The shadows cast by the torch had hidden it. Bits of stone had fallen out, and a hole the size of an apple let in sunlight and fresh air. He crouched under it, breathing in the sweet chill. Carefully, he felt the hole's edges with shaking hands. It crumbled away, and he realized he could start tearing out chunks. He might have a way out.
But he didn't know what to do.
For a long moment, the very idea of finding a way out seemed blasphemous. He was dead. He had died and accepted it. And now, here was a way out, and what would he do? Dig his way free, climb to the surface, find his way to a commlink and notify his section where he could be picked up. From there? Would he resume his ways like the man in the story, forever wicked and hopeless?
He sat back on his haunches and scrubbed his face, noticing for the very first time that his cheeks were covered in lacerations and stubble.
If not that, then what? Should he curl up here and die anyway? Because he deserved it? If he left here, what was he to do?
He looked over his shoulder at Shraddha's corpse. It was becoming bloated, and in another day or so, things would get really bad. In the light, he saw near her head, the bag she'd been taken with. Curious, he reached over and lifted it toward him. Inside were the items he'd seen when he'd originally upended it on the table – ration bars, GPS tracker, full-spectrum antibiotics, and something else. His fingers brushed it while he pulled a ration bar out. It was a bible, and in it, as a place marker, was a rose.
He opened it to the marked page. The rose had been pressed, but its colors were still vibrant with pink and cream.
"And he awoke one morning to find his staff covered in fragrant blossoms, though it was winter," he murmured.
He held the pressed flower to his nose, and smelled the faded perfume of a long ago summer. The pages of the bible fluttered in his hand as cold air poured in through the chink. Looking down, he saw the place she had marked. Mathew, Chapter 29, Verse 26: "With God, all things are possible."
And he understood.
The door opened only a few moments after he knocked. It was dark, and it had started snowing, but the people of New Rhodesia weren't the type to ignore strangers even under those circumstances. Perhaps especially under those circumstances.
The man who opened the door was grey with exhaustion, lines around his mouth and eyes cutting deep. He looked with a wary expression at the man who stood before him.
"What can I do for you, stranger?"
He paused, trying to find words to fit on his tongue. "I was hoping…sir,… that perhaps I could help you. I heard your daughter was ill, and I have some medicine on me. Maybe I could trade that for a little food and a place to sleep."
Behind the man, he saw a woman sitting at a plank table, slouched over a cup of something. She looked up sharply at his words.
"Allen, you bring that man in here," she called.
"What's your name?" the man asked.
He blinked in surprise. He hadn't for a moment thought of what he'd call himself when he'd walked away from his tomb, his death, and his old life. In Shraddha's old rucksack, he carried the original contents, her silver cross, and the few pickings of his old life he could bear to keep – including several ident cards with half a dozen aliases on them. None would be proper to use, though. His hand closed over the bag, and in it, he felt the now familiar bulge of a leather bound bible.
"Book," he answered. "I'm called Book."