The dining hall in Serenity was decked with the lights from Kaylee's bunk and fake holly for the up-coming holiday season. Inara, River, and Kaylee had alternately begged, threatened, and bribed the Captain to be allowed to put them up. Mal shook his head as he walked on through after finishing his nightly ritual of checking on his ship, and went to bed.

The ship was quiet except for the continuous hum of the engine's life support systems and the rhythmic beeping of an incoming WAVE. It had obviously come in after River had already put Serenity to sleep and had headed down to her bunk. Mal's first thought was to let the caller leave a message and deal with it in the morning. But a second thought pushed him up to the bridge and let through the connection. The face on the screen was one that the Captain had never wanted to see again, and had, in fact, threatened to shoot the next time he saw.

"Gwai-gwai long duh dong!"

"I'm very sorry for disturbing you, Captain Reynolds," the government Operative apologized, "but I must speak with you. In fact, I would suggest you bring your entire crew in on this, especially River Tam. It's a matter of significance to her."

"Just what the hell is this about?" Mal demanded. "Thought you said you weren't the Parliament's man anymore."

"I'm not. As a matter of fact," the Operative took a breath and refocused on the Captain, "I've become a contact of the underground movement which helped Dr. Tam break his sister out of the Academy in the first place. And, please, I would rather only have to say this once."

Mal bit the inside of his cheek as his stomach churned. He just knew this was going to be something bad. Oh, it was surely something important, or the man would never have contacted him, but sure as the raining fires of hell, it was going to put his crew smack in harms way again.

"Wuh tzai chien shr ee-ding ruh dao shuh-muh run luh bah?" Mal muttered as he reached up and yanked the com down from its hook on the ceiling. "Sorry to wake you folks up, but I need everyone on the bridge."

The crew slowly trickled up the stairs. Zoë and Jayne first, then Inara floated in tying her robe around her, then River in her white nightgown, and finally Kaylee and Simon both looking very put out and disheveled. Zoë stood at attention at Mal's right, staring emotionlessly at the screen. Jayne stood in back with his arms crossed, although Mal had a feeling the man wanted to go get a weapon to shoot the image of the man since he couldn't reach the Operative himself. Inara had walked to Mal's side as soon as she'd come onto the bridge, but backed a few steps away when she saw who the WAVE was from. Simon put his arm around Kaylee, and his free hand in River's as she hovered by his side.

"Alright," Mal announced from his seat in the pilot's chair, "now that we're all here, what do you want?"

The Operative cleared is throat and made a gentlemanly bow. "Ms. Tam, would you please come forward?"

River's breath was shallow as she stepped toward the console so that the small camera could transmit her face. She kept the Captain slightly in front of her, even though she knew that the Operative couldn't reach through the screen and snatch her. It made her feel safer to have someone between them. What could he possibly want with her now? The Parliament had nullified the warrant for her arrest, the Operative had said that the psychic program was being dismantled, and for all intents and purposes, River had been a free woman for four months now.

"It's very nice to finally meet you, Ms. Tam," the Operative greeted her, his eyes taking in her square face, her large brown eyes, and the trembling line of her mouth. "You know, I only got a glimpse of you at Mr. Universe's complex. You were on the floor, in a corner, crying while Ms. Serra tried to calm you down. I must say, you hardly look capable of the damage you did that day."

He looked down, showing only his forehead and crown to the image recording device on his end. He looked to River to be trying to say something difficult.

"It's better to rip a bandage off all at once," she told him.

The Operative raised his face again and slowly nodded. "Yes. You are right. Ms. Tam, I assume you know the five phase plan of your training at the Academy?"

River gripped the back of the pilot's chair that the Captain still inhabited. Not able to find her voice, she nodded. She could feel the curiosity and confusion of her crew mates, but her attention remained focused on the screen.

"I'm sorry, Ms. Tam," he continued. "The Academy has completed Phase 5."

All of the air in River's body was expelled on a chocked sob as she doubled over the back of Mal's chair. "…No…."

Simon rushed forward, and Mal turned around in his chair and grabbed the girl's arms to keep her from falling over. She wasn't looking to steady on her feet at the moment. Gently, the two men got River into the chair, tears leaking from the corners of her eyes as she struggled to breathe.

"What the ruttin' hell is Phase 5?" Mal spun to ask the Operative.

Before the man could do more than open his mouth, River's small voice answered from beneath long streams of her hair. "Phase 1: General Education. You'd be surprised how much death can be taught as advanced physics. Trajectories, acceleration, angular velocity, projectile motion….Phase 2: Physical Training. Very important. Must teach the body to kill. Martial arts are not downloadable, you know. Phase 3: Limbic Manipulation. Cold chairs, long needles, nightmares, and screaming. It was observed that subjects responded better when Phases 2 and 3 were issued conjointly. Phase 4: Application. Simon got her out before they could unleash their weapon on a target."

River shuddered and folded herself into a ball on the chair, forehead pressed against her knees. To hell with protecting her spine. River should have been protecting her stomach. "Huh choo-shung tza-jiao duh tzang-huo!"

"River?" Simon murmured. "Mei-mei? What was Phase 5?"

With effort, only wanting to burry her head in her knees and never look up again, River raised her face enough to whisper, "Phase 5: Generation."

"Generation?" Mal asked the Operative, who had been quiet while River explained the situation.

"What she means is that the last phase of the program—which was only a hypothetical until River was taken from the Academy—was meant to examine whether or not a second generation of Academy students would prove to be even more effective than a first generation."

Inara's mouth dropped open a little, and she stepped forward next to Mal. "A-are you saying that they were going to…breed their subjects?"

"In a sense," the Operative confirmed. "Although it is unlikely the female subjects would have carried their own children. As in this case, a surrogate would have been found and implanted with an embryo."

"Well, that's at least better than having her raped and knocked up," Simon spat.

"Not an issue," River murmured drawing everyone's attention once again. Her head was up now, and she had calmed down enough to sit back and push her hair out of her face.

"What do you mean, it's not an issue?" Inara asked.

"You didn't see the scar?" she asked the older woman. "You were there, in the cargo bay when I crawled out of the box. You didn't see the scar? Simon?"

Her brother winced and bit the inside of his bottom lip when he realized what she meant. "I…."

"Didn't want to think about it," River finished for him. She patted his hand. "I understand."

"Wanna explain for the rest of us?" Jayne piped up from in back.

River craned her neck and spoke directly to the mercenary. "What good is a gun that you can't use for nearly a year?"

"Not too gorram much," he answered.

"Exactly," she whispered. "What good is a pregnant weapon? Not too gorram much."

Kaylee gasped and covered her mouth.

Jayne's eyebrows met his hairline. "Oh. So…they took all your goods out?"

"Jayne!" Kaylee smacked his arm.

"They severed the fallopian tubes from my uterus," River explained. "There was no need to remove anything. It would have probably caused unwanted problems for the doctors if they drastically altered the physiology of a still-developing adolescent girl."

Inara put her hand on River's shoulder and squeezed, tears welling up in her eyes.

"This is what you called us for?" Mal demanded of the Operative. "To tell us that they had River bred?"

"Yes," he answered. "And to ask if you wanted to help us get her out."

The crew went quiet.

"It's a girl?" River asked.

The Operative smiled softly. The screen cut to a picture of a pink newborn with chubby cheeks. Her eyes were still closed, but there was a fine growth of dark brown hair on her head and the suggestion of eyebrows. Tiny hands curled over the top of a pink blanket, and underneath the picture was a series of letters and numbers.

"She's so pretty," Kaylee said.

"Wuh de tyen, ah." Simon shook his head at how anyone could do this. "Húndans."

The Operative's voice came over the picture of the baby. "Officially she's labeled RT215042518—River Tam 2, born the fifteenth of April, 2518."

When the picture cut back to the man waiting for an answer, River had made her decision. The whole crew had in their minds. They would not leave a child in the hands of the Academy. River set her feet on the floor and sat tall in the pilot's seat. "Where do we meet you?"

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

Timeline based on Edgar Governo's Firefly Timeline.

Gwai-gwai long duh dong --- what the hell

Wuh tzai chien shr ee-ding ruh dao shuh-muh run luh bah --- I surely annoyed someone or other in a past life, didn't I

Huh choo-shung tza-jiao duh tzang-huo!--- Filthy fornicators of livestock!

Wuh de tyen, ah ---dear god in heaven

Húndans—sons of bitches