Bombs fell all around them. Time after time it was the same old scene; the remaining browncoats hiding in some tiny cave, bombs falling all around them.
This time it was Joseph among the wounded. He wouldn't make it, but for now he was aware. Hurting, but aware. For some reason there was a lapse in the explosions. Then tiny clangs punctuated the night.
"What… what is that…?"
"I don't know, Joseph."
"Yeah, Joseph, it's me."
"The Serge here?"
"Sure am, Joe."
"I need you to… to tell my… family I…"
"I ain't tellin' your family anything, Joe. You're gonna get to tell 'em yourself."
"I ain't makin' it through this, Serge…"
"Joseph, how many times have you heard me make the speech?"
"Do I really need to make it again? You ain't dyin' today, nor any other day in this war. Someday you'll die of old age with your wife and children surroundin' you on a planet much nicer than this one, but until then you quit thinkin' about death, because it ain't gonna happen."
Silence fell again, aside from the little clangs. Zoe, Mal and six other officers spoke whispered amongst each other. Soon the clangs were punctuated with little hisses.
Joseph heard Zoe say quite clearly, "oh God."
Mal responded by taking out his crucifix from under his shirt and whispered to it. "What IS that?" Joseph whispered. Zoe turned slowly to regard the fallen soldier.
"That would be gas escaping from metal capsules."
"Oh god. They've really sunk this low."
"They've always been this low. Why do you think we're fighting this war?" Mal thought for a few seconds within the silence before making a command decision. "Zoe, you take Joseph. I'll take Lawrence; Killoran, you take Walt. We're going to make a run for it and hope the other platoon does likewise." Mal shook his head as he threw an unconscious form across his shoulder. "There ain't no one comin' back from this."
"River. How far out from Yanash are we?"
"Less than a day."
"Thanks for that, but I'm looking for time in hours, or minutes if you got it."
Mal paused. "That's six hours, right?"
"Four and a half."
"Gotcha." Mal started down the stairs, stopped and wheeled around. "You can't shave any time off that figure, now can you?"
River tilted her head back and Mal just noticed the glare she was giving him that stated quite plainly, "If I could shave any time off I'd have done it already, and by the way I've probably saved you five hours just by sitting here."
"Right then." This time he made it down the stairs and down into the cargo hold. He was greeted by Zoe upon his entrance into the vast open space.
"Inara just got off the Cortex with the Mad Hatter. Said he had something to talk to you about."
"I'm on my way up there now. We're touching down in Yanash in four hours, so you got any errands you'd like to run, make plans to run 'em."
"Yanash? Why we settin' down on that ruttin' planet? Ain't nothin' there but rock and wiggy folk," Jayne commented from behind a crate somewhere, no doubt "keeping a watchful eye" on the load of heavy arsenal they were transporting.
"Them wiggy folk tend to have plenty of use for illegal repeaters, Jayne. Easy profits. Plus I've got a bone to pick with the Mad Hatter."
"I thought he was the one who wanted to talk to you," came Jayne's muffled voice.
"The name 'Mad Hatter' mean anything to you? The man doesn't know what's what, unless he's talking about the past. Tell Kaylee what we're up to; the few sane folk on Yanash can usually use transport, and they almost never have anything to do with the Alliance. We could use some passengers 'bout now," he called as he made his way toward Shuttle One. He started opening the hatch, smiled dimly, and settled instead for soft knocking.
"Come in," came the soft voice from within. He tried to shake off the tickle in his spine as he stepped inside.
"I heard the Mad Hatter contacted you," Mal stated. He hid the nervousness in his voice well.
"Actually, I contacted him." She sat in front of the blank cortex screen and looked out the window. For the first time since she'd come back on the ship months ago, she hadn't turned to greet him warmly. She kept her back turned.
Mal's eyes grew suspicious, and he waited for a spell before answering. "This whole scene seems mighty peculiar, Inara. I wonder if you might look me in the eye and explain to me what gives you the right to talk to my clients when I don't come within spittin' distance of yours."
She sighed and turned her chair around. Her face was torn between indignence and worry. "Let it go, Mal."
Mal clenched his teeth. "I haven't a clue as to what you're talking about."
"You know exactly what I'm talking about. Ever since we went to Miranda, you've done little else but stress and obsess about what has been. Concentrate on what's now, Mal. The past doesn't matter half as much as the present does."
A muscle in his jaw twitched. "We ain't gonna have this conversation." He turned on his heel and strode from the room. Inara sighed heavily and chased after him.
"One way or another, Mal, we are going to have this conversation. We can have it in private or we can have it in front of everyone, it's up to you. But the fact is that you need some sober second-thought on the matter, and as of late I haven't seen a lot of sobriety from you." Her words echoed throughout the cargo hold, and she regretted them as soon as she said them. Jayne stood from behind the crates and looked up at the pair; Zoe opted to look down at her feet and busy herself moving things about for unloading.
Inara stood, trying to force the guilt off her face as Malcolm turned slowly to meet her gaze angrily. "There ain't nothin' keeping you here, Inara. You don't like the way I do things, you're more than welcome to find somewhere else to be."
"You know that's not what I—"
"We're stopping off in Yanash in a few hours. You think you can do better there, you're welcome to disembark. I could use the room anyhow."
"Learning about what he was won't help you learn who he was!" Inara cried after him as he strode angrily around the corner. He gave no indication that he heard her. She sighed in exasperation and stormed back into her shuttle.