Chapter One: The Dire Importance of Tacos

Serenity: January 2519

Mal stared down uncertainly at the tacos. They looked edible but you could never be too sure.

"You made tacos," he pointed out.

"Aye capt'n," his new pilot seemed inordinately pleased with herself, grinning wide enough to rival Kaylee.

"Huh," he nodded and glanced around. "Why tacos?"

"You don't like them," she glanced down and tucked a blue strand behind her ear.

"Now I didn't say that…" he shrugged helplessly.

"Fred," Zoe piped up. "I think what the captain is trying to say is…why tacos?"

"What's wrong with tacos?" Fred looked up sharply. "Tacos are very important you know. Like when you're trapped all alone for years and years. Can't go out. Can't escape. You say the words over and over again but nothing ever happens. Slave so long that everything else becomes a dream, tacos become real important right about then."

Mal blinked. "So," he said. "Tacos it is."

"The tortillas are just your basic resequenced protein, but it's real chicken." Fred glanced uncertainly around. "If ya'll don't want them," she said. "Then I'll eat them all."

Jayne immediately sprung into action spearing one of the tacos with his knife. He took a small experimental bite.

"The shell doesn't matter," River said. She glided to the table. "It's what's inside that counts. Locked up too long in the dark. They forgot what it meant to be a chicken." She frowned. "Memories are the component parts of the self. Cascade failure, entropy increases, memory corrodes. Are the chickens still chickens if they don't remember?"

Fred's eyes flashed dangerously. For a moment her features shifted into something alien. Inara narrowed her eyes in concern. She felt a chill run up her spin at the coldness in those eyes. Then as quickly as it had come the moment was gone. Inara could almost believe she had imagined it, almost.

"Tastes like chicken," Jayne said. "Then it's chicken." The others began to sit down and serve themselves.

"We got a course set," Mal asked between bites.

"All plotted and laid in. We'll be at Trantor in about a day," Fred answered.

"Another stop in an exciting life of crime," Inara said.

"Hey," Mal said. "I'll have you know it was dangerous. Could have been killed right enough."

"Of course, and what was our take in the great teddy bear heist?"

"Enough to pay for this here shiny feast," Mal said. "I know jobs have been somewhat scarce of late, but we have a powerful need to stay of the Alliance radar for a good while. Could be they've got a lot of other things on their mind about now, but they ain't going to be forgetting Miranda in a hurry." A beeping interrupted him. "What was that?"

"Just a proximity alarm," Fred said rising from her seat. "Probably just have to make a minor correction. Nothing to worry about." As she headed off to the bridge, River's eyes followed her.

"Something wrong River," Mal asked.

She turned and met Mal's eyes. "It's dark where she is," River nodded towards Fred's retreating back. Then she took a huge bite out of her taco.

Undisclosed Location: June 2518

The Operative waited patiently in the dark. She said she would contact him at exactly 1300 hours, and she was nothing if not punctual. He had heard the stories. Dr. Burkle was a legend in certain circles. Most considered her a myth, like a ghost, but the Operative knew better. After all, that's what they said about him. His computer beeped demanding confirmation. The ocular scan took a few moments to verify. He rose to his full height and waited.

The screen flickered to life. Dr. Burkle's cold blue eyes stared out at him. She didn't say hello, but then she never did.

"You are aware of the Tam situation," she asked. He nodded. The Academy's greatest success and worst embarrassment.

"My steps to reacquire her were unsuccessful," Burkle frowned. "My agents have paid for their failures. Every hour that psychic is free the danger increases. That cannot be allowed. I have need of one of your kind. Hunt her down and return her to me. You have full Parliamentary authority. You will begin at the Academy." She tilted her head peering at the Operative. "You have questions."

"What are your orders concerning Dr. Mathias?"

"His is useful to me no more." The Operative nodded his understanding. Mathias was widely considered the head of the operation, but Burkle had long ago assumed de facto control.

Dr. Burkle was not a woman to have as an enemy. Like him she had no place in the new world. He would protect it, and she would build it, but neither would live there. Sometimes though, the Operative caught hints in Burkle's voice. She would only grudgingly mention Parliament, as if it irritated her to answer to a greater power. That was dangerous. Perhaps one day, he would be forced to tell her, her sin. Today, however, he had a little girl to catch.

"Do you have further question?"

"No," the Operative said.

"Then we are done." The screen went suddenly dark.

Dr. Burkle rose from her computer in one fluid motion. Her skin darkened gaining a bluish tint. Blue streaks seeped into her hair, a simple modulation of her form. Illyria had been forced to assume the aspect of the shell so often that the lines were blurring. Winifred Burkle had brown eyes in life, but Illyria could no longer hide her own blue orbs. It was galling that a previously simple process was becoming increasingly difficult, a sign of things to come.

She wished the Tam situation had not come this. The Operative was effective, but his loyalty to the Alliance was too strong for Illyria's liking. She wished she could send Spike instead, but that was, of course, impossible. No, the Operative would have to suffice. She turned and exited, taking a plate with her. The halls were deserted. This was her wing of the compound; no one came without her permission. She placed her hand on the panel. It beeped confirming her identity. The door swung open. The guard magic recognized her and allowed her to pass.

The far wall was filled, floor to ceiling with TV screens. News and shows all flashed by. A figure sat unmoving before them. The dull light of the TV's flickered across his face. Illyria approached him blocking his view. He made no move.

"You will eat," Illyria said. He didn't answer, he never did. "I brought tacos." She sat the plate down in front of him. He didn't so much as blink. Illyria stared down at her catatonic pet. He'd been like this for almost a century now. It would be more humane to simply stake him and put his ashes on the mantle with the other half-breed, but Illyria would never do that. Like her, he was the last.

"They've got blood on them," she added brightly, Fred's accent coloring her words. Still no response. Spike just sat there motionless, as always.