Disclaimer: None of these characters are my creation. I can wish and dream, and play in Joss's 'Verse, but he owns the characters that own my heart.


Chapter 3

When Mal came to, it was to the dim lights of Serenity's night glowing from the ceiling of the infirmary. Looking around him, he saw Zoë on the main bed to his right. He realized he was laying on the counter that doubled as a second bed in times of need. Like now, Mal thought. Zoë had a bloody bandage on her left arm, and another on her left leg. In addition, her head was bandaged. Reaching up to touch his own head gingerly, Mal learned he sported a similar wrapping.

"Zoë?" the Captain said quietly. When his first mate didn't move, Mal decided to try his legs. Standing shakily, the Captain made slow progress to the infirmary door. Simon was asleep on the couch outside, and woke up with a start when Mal cleared his throat loudly.

"Captain," the doctor said in surprise. "You shouldn't be up. You need to rest, regain your strength. You need to get well quickly so you can go find my sister."

"River's gone?" Mal asked urgently. "They took her. Oh god, I shoulda fought, 'stead'a just layin' down arms like that. Why'd she tell me to do it?" Mal's guilt was overwhelming, and he walked weakly over to sit heavily next to the doctor. "Simon, she didn't know they were coming. Why didn't she know?"

Simon looked at the broken Captain. "Mal," he said quietly, calmly, "we have to find her. Once we have her back from whoever took her, we can figure out what's going on with her abilities. Now, what can you tell me about the people who have her?"

"Not much, doc," Mal replied. "Is Jayne all right?" At Simon's nod, Mal asked, "Did he tell you anything useful? Simon shook his head at that. "He never showed himself to us," the Captain continued. "I didn't recognize the voice. He said he wasn't in it for money, though."

As Mal and Simon continued to discuss the situation, Jayne came through on his way to the galley. He spoke with the Captain briefly, assuring Mal that he was fine, and continued on to eat. The mercenary seemed subdued. Eventually, Zoë woke up, and both men went in to see her.

According to the story she told them, she'd decided to fight after she watched Jayne and the Captain fall. They'd both taken vicious blows to the head, and the blood pooling around the men made Zoë think they may be dead. In the ensuing fight, the first mate had wounded two or three of the men, and most likely killed at least one. She had taken bullets in the leg and arm, and then someone had clubbed her from behind.

"I'm tryin' to suss out why they left us alive," Mal said, a puzzled look on his face. "They coulda saved themselves a whole lotta trouble by just killin' us, 'stead'a knocking us out nice and polite like."

"Maybe they're just dumb," Jayne said from behind them, the mouthful of food slurring his words slightly. "Ain't like we never run across stupid criminals before. Remember them bandits we took out on Harvest? Hell, they thought Mal was good for a piece'a trim!"

Jayne received nothing but disdainful stares for his joke and crude laughter. "Why don't we all take this conversation elsewhere," Simon said in a tone of voice that made clear it wasn't a request. "Zoë needs to rest still, and I believe the Captain could use some more sleep as well."

"Ain't sleepin' till I find out who's got my pilot, doc," Mal responded stubbornly. "Plenty'a time to sleep once we're on their trail." Walking weakly along the wall out of the infirmary, though, Simon heard the Captain mumbling, "Might not hurt to sit down, though. Leastways till I get some kinda clue." Mal headed to the bridge, where Inara had been keeping an eye on things.

"How is Zoë?" the Companion asked when Mal dropped heavily into the copilot's chair. "For that matter, why are you up?" Her concern was genuine, as far as the Captain could tell, and he was too weak to argue with the woman.

"Zoë'll be just fine," he answered. "I'm fine, too." At Inara's doubtful expression, Mal sighed wearily. "Okay, I ain't fine. But I can't just lay in the infirmary and recuperate while River's out there somewhere, maybe hurt."

The concern Mal showed for River broke Inara's heart a little. The worry radiating from the man was palpable, and it filled the bridge to the point Inara felt suffocated. "I'm sure we'll find her," the Companion said with as much reassurance as she could muster. "Those people can't just disappear into thin air."

"The Black is awful big," Mal said nearly in defeat. "I don't even know where to start. I just hope I'll get lucky, before something bad happens to her. I don't think I could handle telling Simon or their parents that she wasn't coming home." The unspoken fact that Mal couldn't handle it himself was obvious to Inara, but she had the tact not to mention it to the miserable man.

XXXXX

Serenity spent two days circling Greenleaf. Mal contacted any authority he could think of, short of actually calling the Alliance, trying to file missing persons claims or track down possible leads on the people who had taken his pilot. The ordeal was emotionally taxing, and Mal found himself sleeping much more than he wanted to, especially after his brash declarations to Simon and Inara.

The authorities on Greenleaf were supremely unhelpful, in Mal's opinion. They were completely unable to help the Captain track any potential ships that could have housed the kidnappers, nor were they very willing to take a missing persons report for an adult woman who had only been gone for one day.

None of the neighboring planets were willing to release arrival or departure logs for their spaceports. Mal tried, with every official he spoke to, to file reports for River, who they said was an adult and free to make her own decisions. Mal had no proof that she had been abducted, and so no authorities were willing to believe that she'd been abducted and taken against her will to another planet.

Finally, fed up with official channels and the inevitable red tape that went hand-in-hand with them, Mal gave up on contacting sheriff's offices and planetary governments. Instead, he began to call every contact he had, no matter what planet they were on, trying to find out if they'd heard any word. None had.

On the third day since the abduction, Mal was awakened from an unexpected nap by a loud and insistent banging on the hatch to his bunk. He shot up out of his bed and nearly ran the few feet to the ladder. Opening the hatch, the Captain gazed up at a concerned looking mercenary. "Jayne?" he asked groggily.

"Zoë says you need to get to the bridge, Cap'n," Jayne said. "Got a Wave you need to take."

XXXXX

Up on the bridge, Zoë greeted the Captain with a look that was both confused and angry. "Sir," she said in a monotone, "I believe there's someone on the Cortex screen you'll want to speak to. Then, hopefully, shoot."

His interest peaked, Mal approached the pilot's chair. The face he saw on the screen made his blood freeze and stole his breath for a moment. "I thought I could look forward to never seein' you again," he said threateningly.

"And I'm sorry to have broken my word to you, Captain Reynolds," said the Operative. "However, I believe I am in possession of some information that may interest you." The former Alliance agent paused, gauging the Captain's reaction, then decided to continue. "I have it under good authority that the government has engaged a few subjects from the Academy as Operatives. Those subjects not fortunate enough to have escaped, like your young Ms. Tam, were engaged in my previous line of work. I've heard they progressed through their training much more quickly than any of my contemporaries, and most are now fully-functioning Operatives."

"What's this got to do with us?" Mal interrupted impatiently. "I ain't of a mind to listen to an Alliance status report right now. I got important matters of my own to attend to. So cut to the quick of things, or you can oblige me by ending this little catch up."

"Captain," the Operative said indulgently, "I believe one of these men may have captured Ms. Tam. I believe you and some of your crew were collateral victims of their kidnapping." Seeing glowering recognition on the Captain's face, the man went on. "I may be able to furnish you with information on their probable whereabouts, if you're interested. In addition, I believe I can be of assistance in recovering your crew member. Are you interested in meeting me to discuss this situation?"

"Assuming I believed you had honorable intentions," Mal said, "and that you could actually help us, what's your stake in this?" The Captain scrutinized the face on the Cortex screen. The Operative was completely unreadable, much to Mal's frustration.

"Captain Reynolds, I believe I proved my ... lack of ill will toward you and your crew the last time we met," answered the other man. "I could very easily have given the kill order, but you and your disturbing broadcast have convinced me that the Alliance is not as honorable as I had once believed. After that unpleasant episode, I did some research of my own, and discovered many unsettling things about my former masters. I wish to halt, to the best of my ability, their forward progress in the manipulation and training of their subjects. If I can also be of assistance to you in retrieving Ms. Tam, all the better. I do not have many allies, so the less enemies I have, the better. I would greatly enjoy the opportunity to prove myself to you."

"Be that as it may," Mal said, "how do I know you're not still working for those hundans? How can I be sure I'm not walking the rest of my crew into some sorta trap?" Although his concern for the crew was genuine, the Captain was extremely anxious to hear what the Operative had to say. His concern for River was strong enough for Zoë and Jayne to feel permeating the bridge.

"I am willing to meet you at a place of your choosing, under any conditions you name," the other man answered. "If you are willing to hear me out, I give you my word of honor, whatever it is worth, that no harm will come to you or any of your people. At least for the duration of our meeting. What happens when and if you decide to mount a rescue is completely up to chance and your own skills, of course."

"How soon can you be on Greenleaf?" Mal asked hesitantly. He had a feeling he was making a mistake in trusting this man, but his worry for River overpowered his reservations

XXXXX

"The people who took her are led by an Alliance Operative trained like River," the Operative said three days later. He had landed less than an hour previously and, after a close fly-by and scan by Serenity, .the crew had landed to meet with him. "The young man completed his Academy training however, not being fortunate enough to have a persistent brother. The man looked at Simon in appreciation at that. "If it weren't for you, as a matter of fact, she likely would be leading the new brood of Operatives," he said to the doctor.

The Captain looked at the former Alliance soldier questioningly. "So you're sayin' we're going up against a whole crew of psychic assassin Operatives?" As much as Mal wanted to retrieve his lover, he did not relish the thought of fighting even one of these people, much less an entire team of them.

"No," the Operative answered simply. "Only the leader has Academy training. The rest of his team is made up of elite Federal soldiers. They have special ops training, and are very dangerous, but they're nowhere near as deadly as your young Ms. Tam. By far, the new Operative is the biggest threat."

"Great," Jayne chipped in. "So we're only goin' up against a crazy you who can see us comin' before we even land, and his team of stone cold killers. Sounds simple."

"Where are they?" Mal interrupted tersely. "You said you know where they are."

"Actually, I said I know their probable location," the Operative responded. "There is a secret Blue Sun facility on Whitefall, and I believe that's where this man's team has based themselves." The Operative saw the mild surprise on the faces of Serenity's crew, and clarified. "Blue Sun is rumored to have been the power behind the Academy experiments. They have been taking a more active role in operations concerning the subjects since your Miranda Wave."

"Great," Mal said dryly. "So what we're looking at is a super-Operative with a team of Special Ops bodyguards, locked down in a secure Blue Sun facility on an unfriendly Border moon. Sounds straightforward enough. We got a plan?"

"As a matter of fact," the Operative answered, "I believe I may. Should we adjourn to your ship to discuss it, or shall we remain standing here in the hot sun all afternoon?" With a brief nod toward Serenity, Mal led the way toward the open cargo bay doors.

The crew and the Operative spent the rest of the day, and well into the night, discussing their options. Once they had a rough plan of action, Zoë took the ship out of the world and set a course for Whitefall. They had a trip of about six days ahead of them, so she set the autopilot and the crew settled down to rest. The entire voyage was spent in preparations and fine tuning their plans. Mal was adamant that no person in the facility should be left alive once River had been safely extracted, and the facility itself should be destroyed, if at all possible.

The Captain wanted revenge.


hundans - bastards