There were two people in the room. Well, three, if one counted the guard at the door, but he didn't count, so there were only two present. They sat at a simple wooden table, small but polished, smooth and clean. Two small mugs sat on it, beside a pitcher of herbal, scented green tea. A bit of smoke drifted from the cigar the woman preferred, but was swept away by the atmosphere processors.
He leaned back, looking at the woman as she inhaled and then exhaled. Her features were fine boned and soft in the dim illumination of the little meeting room, the faintly red-white lights coming from all four corners. Despite that, there were dark lines of age on her skin, wrinkles that only stress brought about, and which she didn't care to have worked away.
"This situation," she said, after a moment, "is untenable."
He considered disagreeing with her. But an officer of Alliance Special Projects, especially one of her age and rank, wasn't the type to argue with. It could have unpleasant repercussions.
"Of that we agree," the man replied, and he stifled the smile he felt as she shifted gears. She'd been expecting an argument, a bevy of excuses, or maybe just begging. Not agreement.
"Good," she said after a second. "I've read the reports. Turnover rate is far too high, and the resources we need to keep canvassing for potentials is stretched thin."
"The processes are difficult, I admit," he replied. "We've had to euthanize several subjects, but that's unavoidable."
"Euthanasia is not my concern," she replied. "My concern is the suicide rate."
"Yes, it is distressing," he agreed.
"Damned right, it is. You're imprinting them with combat and adaptive espionage training. How the hell did you not expect them to start acting on their psychoses?'
"We didn't expect-"
"Expect what? A thirty-five percent attrition rate due to suicide? You break them, and when someone is broken and not allowed to escape or heal, it is only human nature to lash out at one's oppressors or to end one's suffering. And it is the nature of the animal we deal with."
He stared back at her, and felt a tiny bit rattled by the woman. She wasn't an Operative, but she was just the same either way. She understood what she was doing, she knew what she was funding, and she neither shied away from it nor excused any aspect of it.
That was what scared him shitless.
"And I have watched the latest set of reports, particularly E-One-Three-Seven's counseling sessions. Especially the last one. Tell me, who had the bright idea to give your pet assassin a metal object with a point?" She held up a hand. "Don't answer. That was rhetorical, I'm still bitching at you, and you'd damn well listen."
She jabbed a finger at him.
"Get the suicide rate under control. I don't care how. If you have to strap them down and sedate them twenty-four-seven, do it. I do not have the resources to canvass all of Alliance space to hunt down potentials." She paused, taking a quick puff on the cigar. "And for the love of Buddha, do not let E-One-Three-Seven die. She's the best subject we've developed in the history of the project, and she's got savant-level adaptation and analytical capabilities. Cerberus needs her, and if we lose her, we'll be set back a decade."
"Yes, ma'am," he managed, and she nodded. She gestured, and the guard walked over to her, pulling the wheelchair she was ensconced in away from the table. Without another word, he pushed her out of the room, leaving the man alone in the soft red light.
He was sitting across the room, a smile on his face that one could swear was made of crystal sugar. Sweet, pretty, pleasant, but brittle as all get-out, and would shatter if the slightest weight was applied to it.
Well, he decided as he stepped into the room, let's see how fragile it really is. Apply some pressure.
He paused as he moved into the door, and looked back at the doorway. The ship's laboring engines rumbled distantly.
"Something is the matter?" the man asked, his accent thick, just like he thought it would be.
"The door," he said, pointing. "It's . . . just there."
He looked back, and saw the smile still lingering.
"The door is there," he continued, gesturing toward it. "But the door, by itself, is just that." He pointed to the floor outside, and the guards. "There's no point behind it, without the hallway. Without the men protecting it. And they, in turn, don't have any meaning without the door."
Silence. Good, he had him confused. But he was still smiling.
"None of it means anything without the proper context," he said as he stepped into the room, holding out his hands. "And that is us."
"You are a, eh, philosopher?" the old man said, his brittle smile still there. He shook his head.
"That ain't it at all," he replied. "I'm just a predator. Same as you."
"Then we must get to our business," the old man said. "You know who I am, yes?"
"Adelei Niska," he replied, sitting down in the chair. It squeaked a little, and that made him cock his head to the side. "What's the point behind that?"
"Hm?" the brittle smile lingered.
"The squeaking," he mused. "Why does it squeak? Why not whistle, or honk? Why does the . . . the escaping air pressure, moving at that speed, produce such an annoying sound?"
"You are here for business," the old man said, his voice dropping. But that smile was still there. Tougher than it looked.
"I am," he replied, leaning forward. "So, let's spell it out. I've worked for your agents before, but never been invited in this context."
"You know this prey," Niska said, his smile still there, even with the shift to more serious matters.
"Now, that's a bit of an assumption," he said. "I don't have prey that gets away. Just prey that's a little better at evading me."
"Ah," Niska said, his smile growing, if possible. "But I know that you are very proud. Have a very solid reputation. You do not want this to be sullied, yes?"
"If it could be sullied," he replied with a grin, wondering what it would take to break Niska's smile. It was getting . . . unsettling. "But you should know, I have a perfect record for catching what I hunt."
"And thus I know you are a bad liar," Niska replied. "For there is one prey that has escaped you."
He reached down and picked up a datapad, and laid it out before him. The hunter peered over the names listed, and his own smile slowly faded.
"Serenity," he whispered, looking up. "How-"
"I have ears and eyes," Niska replied. "And I know who recovered you from the Black. I had him tortured to death some weeks ago. Most . . . cathartic."
"Be that as it may, I don't-"
"He was very talkative," Niska continued, his smile still plastered on, like an etching in rock. His hands were above the desk, and now the predator could see that the fingers on his right hand were a pinky and a ring finger short.
"Now, to proper business," Niska continued. "Malcolm Reynolds has caused me grief. He takes my money, his crew attacks my skyplex, his crew attacks my freighter, and he has been raiding my ships. I do not like this. I send a team to deal with him, they all end up in field on Corinth. They lack in breathing, and appreciable amounts of blood. So, I need a proper hunter."
"Then you've come to the right man," the predator replied, grinning. "You want Reynolds, I've got him."
"I want all," Niska said. "All of his crew. Alive."
"Well, that's a steep request. Gonna cost-"
"One hundred thousand for every crew member alive," Niska said. "Two hundred for Reynolds. Information here, for you."
He slid the datapad across the desk, and the hunter took it. He thumbed through the personnel files, nodding. He paused at one, pressed his lips together, and smiled, then moved a little further on.
"You've got it," the hunter said, and then paused. He smiled, looking over the very last one.
"The girl, here," he mused. "She isn't even out of her teens, but she's the most dangerous person on that boat." The hunter sighed, shaking his head at the notion.
"Does that seem right to you?"
The corridor was white and well-lit, yet dark and lifeless at the same time. That was to be expected with hallways made of metal. The doctor walking down the corridor paused as he looked at the chart he held in his hands, and then turned to look up at the officer beside him. He hated dealing with the military, but the colonel was an exception.
"She's showing increased signs of depression and growing self-destructive tendencies. I don't think I need to tell you how bad that is."
"We've lost too many due to suicide already," the colonel said. "We train them to fight, to be able to survive, and they turn that into methods to hurt themselves."
"The ones that remain sensate enough, at least," the doctor mused. "Another twenty percent need to be euthanized due to madness or catatonia. But One-Three-Seven's case is exceptionally worrisome."
"Because of her potential."
"Most of the others are just testbeds," the doctor explained, starting down the passage. The colonel kept eyeing him, as he would peer at a scientist who was dissecting a living animal. "One-Three-Seven is a rarity. She's an Empath whose telesthetic capabilities are very impressive – even before she was upgraded. But the kicker is that brain of hers. She's a savant, and she reads and analyzes data faster than most computers. Unconsciously. Part of the reason she talks like that. With the right gear, it's possible we could extend the effect across dozens, or maybe hundreds, of kilometers. The applications . . . ."
"Are useless if she self destructs or breaks down like the others," the colonel said.
"Right," the doctor mused. "That's why I'm considering we institute some reforms. Not a change in the process, but perhaps work on coping mechanisms."
"Security concerns mean we keep the subjects separate, and they don't interact well with lab personnel."
"Which is why I'm proposing we use a Blank."
A few moments of silence passed.
"You can't be serious."
"On the contrary," the doctor said. "I know that Blanks are a special resource. We can't just pull them off security duties, but I have the perfect candidate, and we need One-Three-Seven alive and sane. Or at least functional."
Barnaby's was a respectable bar, or at least as respectable as one could get sitting this close to the docks at Boros' capital city. That naturally meant it was only suitable for those below the middle pegs of civilized society, which was perfectly acceptable clientele at a set of docks that busy.
The haze that usually developed in such a place after it had stayed open until early morning without proper air filtration hung about the head and shoulders. Coupled with standard-issue uneven neon lighting, it made it difficult to make out faces past headbutting range - an issue only complicated by the copious amounts of alcohol being served. Tabletops were sticky with unidentified substances, and the pungent mixture of various inhaled drugs, even more varied drinks, and the dazzling myriad of scents produced by the human body lent the room its uniquely intoxicated charm.
"Oi, deary, what can I do for you?" asked the portly, dark-skinned bartender as he approached the woman by the bar, seeming to materialize from the ever-present neon-lit smoke. He grinned at her as he began wiping the wooden bar-top, his teeth glittering with gold, silver, and diamond.
"Lager, shot of Brunnick's Whiskey," she said, and leaned forward. The bartender's face scrunched up, and then his smile widened.
"Oh, deary, its you! I haven't seen you in ages, Ash!"
"You've put a lot of gold in your teeth since I shipped out, Morris," replied Ashley Frye, and the bartender laughed.
"Been good times, Ash," he said, mixing the drink behind the bar. "What brings you back here? Been at least two years, my reckon'. You on leave?"
"Sort of," the soldier said, taking the foaming mug from the bartender. "I'm on 'extended' leave."
"Ooooh," Morris said, his grin fading, and he nodded. "What happened? You get into an argument with your lieutenant again?" He raised his fists to insinuate what manner of argument he meant.
"Not this time," Ash replied. She took a sip from her drink, and nodded at the taste. "I'm looking for someone, thought you might know him, or where I can find him."
"If a ship passed through Boros, I know about it," Morris replied, nodding. "Got my ear to the 'verse and all."
"His name's Malcolm Reynolds," the soldier said, and that made Morris' face scrunch up, and not in thought. Ash paused in mid drink, seeing a bit of apprehension on Morris' face, and the nearby conversation quieted a bit.
"Yeah, I know him," Morris said, slowly nodding. He glanced to either side, and scowled. "Oi, what're you lot starin' at? Ain't you gonna leave a man and his lass in peaceful conversation! Git!" He waved beefy hands in the air, and the nearest people moved off, and the muted background conversation resumed.
"Aye, I know Malcolm Reynolds," Morris continued, his voice quieter. He leaned in close to Ashley. "Captains a Firefly, called Serenity. Goes here and thereabouts in the 'Verse, doing manner of work as they can find. What's your interest?"
"Start with why it got quiet when I mentioned him," Ashley replied. Morris frowned.
"You hear of a man named Adelei Niska?" Ashley shook her head. "Bad sort. Runs all the black marketing out of Ezra, mercenaries, smuggling, slave trading, you name it. He's got a major beef with Malcolm Reynolds, some kind of blood feud, started a year or so back. You go throwing that name about, trouble will follow you."
"Good to know," Ashley said. "Maybe he'll come find me."
"No, that's not how he works," Morris said, shaking his head. "Reynolds is a careful sort. He knows someone's onto him, he'll rabbit like a ghost on grease, understand?"
"You know anything about his crew? Where he stays?"
"He's got no regular berth, stays on the move all the time," Morris said. "Don't know much about his crew, just know they've seen off Niska's own mercenaries more than once. Rumors they've been involved with Alliance trouble, some stories mention Reavers, too. Nonsense, I says. What's your interest in them?"
"My sister," Ash said. "They might know where she is. She disappeared after some violence on Persephone, and I'm looking for her. Nothing else."
"That's why you're on extended leave, eh?" Morris asked, and Ashley shrugged, polishing off the last of her lager.
"Where are they headed, you know?"
"Heard a Firefly got hired to do some smuggling to Silverhold last few weeks," Morris said. "And I did hear Reynolds may have been in on that job. That's just a maybe, though, there's thirty thousand Firefly ships zipping about the 'Verse nowadays. But Reynolds' name did come up."
"Silverhold," Ashley mused.
"That's a ways from here, and they might already be gone by the time you get there," Morris advised her.
"Then I'd better leave quick, huh?" Ashley said, dropping some coins on the bar. "Thanks, Morris."
"Anytime, lassie. Come back when you need a drink and a word, alright?"
Ashley nodded, smiled, and pushed off from the bar, and slammed into a man standing behind her. She spun around, looking into the face of a pale-skinned man with black hair, a bushy black beard, and bright blue eyes.
"Hey, girl, watch it," the man said, his voice slurred from alcohol.
"Sorry," she said, pushing past him.
"Hey, stay a second," the man said, stepping after her, a mug in one hand and his other grabbing at her shoulder. "Might me and the boys show you a good-"
"No," Ashley said, turning to face him. "Sit down, before you break something."
"Ooh, tough girl, huh?" the black-haired man said, laughing and still holding her shoulder. "I like 'em tough. Any woman can kick my ass, I say-"
His hand was no longer on her shoulder, as she rolled under it and rose up on his left side. Her hand shot down, grabbing the mug the man was holding, and snatched it out of his hand, before spinning around and smashing over the top of the drunk's skull. The glass shattered into a dozen pieces, splashing Ashley and the drunk with beer, and the man went down hard.
"Told you, might break something," Ash grunted. She turned toward Morris, who was simply shaking his head, and she tossed him a couple of coins.
"Sorry about the mess," she said, stepping over the drunk and toward the door. A few moments later, the conversation around Barnaby's resumed. The drunk slowly picked himself up off the floor, and as he did so, he managed to see Ashley disappear out the door. He frowned, as he saw a second shape, larger and darker, step out a few heartbeats afterward.
The monthly report was coming slowly, and for the man making it, it wasn't a pleasant experience. Hell, none of this business was. Some could turn off their brains and their emotions and take care of the cutting and the mental conditioning without a flinch, but he couldn't Probably why he'd been regulated to administrative and behavioral operations, instead of biochemical.
"In the months prior, Subject E-One-Three-Seven continued to show abnormally reticent behavior, refusing to speak with operations personnel, trainers, or the counselor assigned to her following the incident. We suspected that this was due to the constant protection detail assigned to her. Subject showed minimal interest in combat and telesthetic exercises, and required memetic code activation to be coerced into participation."
The doctor paused, taking a sip of his drink. He looked around his office, part of his apartment in the residential complex deep underground, well removed from the main facility. He knew, though, that concrete was no barrier to them.
How many were listening to him, right now?
"This changed shortly after introduction to Blank-One-One-Seven. Contact with One-One-Seven resulted in active but guarded conversation between the two during assigned social interaction and eating periods. Doctor Mathias suggests that this is due to introduction to a Blank that is not considered security personnel and is in roughly the same age group, though four years One-Three-Seven's senior."
The doctor paused again, checking his notes.
"We have noted an increase in interest and participation in exercises following the introduction to this new element, and have authorized him to continue participating in combat exercises. Observation of their attitudes shows an increased emotional connection from One-Three-Seven toward One-One-Seven. This has led to some concerns about behavioral conflicts, particularly due to the strict need to maintain control over all subjects' hormonal tendencies during puberty and teenage growth periods. Doctor Clef has assured the staff that the treatments given by Doctor Brinks will keep sexual desires and feelings suppressed for prolonged periods, and that the next round of yearly treatments should keep sexual activity suppressed for at least fourteen months. We should have no worries that One-Three-Seven will develop sexual desire for One-One-Seven."
The doctor paused, frowning, and took another sip from his drink. It was the best vodka money could buy, but he wished he could spend the piles of cash he was being paid on something better.
He started to speak again, but paused, looking up at the entrance to his office. He frowned, and set the recording wand down.
"Colonel," he said, sitting up in his chair. He noted the grave look on the officer's face, which set off mental alarm bells. "What happened?"
"We had a breach," the officer said, and stepped into the room. Two armed soldiers – not facility agents, but armored Alliance personnel – stepped into the room. "There's been an escape. I'll need to see your files and records now, sir. And these men will escort you to holding."
"Holding?" the doctor breathed. "What the hell-"
"The escapee had assistance," the colonel said, voice deathly calm as the soldiers moved into the room and flanked the doctor. "We have confirmed an internal breach of security. Doctor Kondraki is also missing. Two test subjects are gone. You will be moved to isolation and we will identify the cause behind this breach."
"Sir, please come with me," one of the soldiers said, not in a particularly threatening manner, but with plenty of authority behind it. The doctor slowly rose, mind racing as the colonel spun on his heel and turned to leave.
"Which ones?" he called after the officer. "Who escaped?"
"Empath-One-Three Seven and Inducer-One-One-Nine," the colonel said, pausing and looking back. "As I understand it, Sergeant Garis is most upset. He'll have . . . questions, for you."
The docks of Boros were like any other dock in any other major port on any other planet in the 'Verse. They were crowded, noisy, colorful, and aromatic. That happened when hundreds of different cultures intermixed and then got dumped on three hundred-odd worlds that each developed their own distinct flavor. Ashley Frye, previously Corporal Frye before her discharge, moved through the crowds with a worried gait. She was used to walking through such crowds, but usually in full gear, and always worried that an Independent would come along with a knife and an attitude.
Now she had another feeling, one she'd gotten while participating in a seek-and-destroy on some moon in Kalidasa two years after the war: that familiar sensation that she wasn't alone.
Of course, that was an absurd notion. She was in a crowd of hundreds of people from every corner of the 'Verse, but that didn't shake the nagging presence of someone tailing her, watching her every move.
She was being hunted.
Morris had been right when he said to not throw around Malcolm Reynolds' name so readily. For a moment, she considered finding the nearest police detachment and flashing her ID, but quashed that. If someone was tailing her because she'd mentioned Reynolds, that meant they knew something about him. That meant they probably knew more than she did.
So, she found a quiet side alley between a restaurant and a pawn broker, and ducked down it, drawing the sidearm she carried as she did so. She hit the charger, and felt the weapon's familiar warm-up whine, and hurried into the relative darkness of the alley between the two shops.
She found a spot behind a dumpster and waited in the darkness, listening and watching the mouth of the alley. People passed by, and the smell still drifted in, mixed in with the pungency of a dumpster behind a restaurant. She kept her eyes on the mouth of the alley, and waited.
Nearly fifteen minutes passed between her entering the alley and now, and the only person who'd entered the alley was a short, pasty-faced busboy from the restaurant, who'd only paused to glance at her before dumping a trashcan in the dumpster. He didn't even blink at her drawn sidearm, and instead simply hurried back inside.
She frowned, and was starting to get frustrated, but she held her position. The hunt-and-kill patrols she'd often been on after the war ended were dependant on patient ambush, and she'd waited days before to catch unwary prey. She could wait for her slow pursuer to catch up to her.
A zip-click at her back said otherwise.
"Gorrammit," she breathed.
Important rule about preparing an ambush: make sure the enemy didn't counter it by maintaining a good watch.
"I see you been in the military too long," a deep voice, tinged with a general Border accent, sounded behind her. "Used to having a squadmate cover your back. Lose the weapon."
She dropped the pistol, and a boot moved past her, kicking it away. She saw it was a carmine color, with stainless steel framing it.
"Alright, now turn around, and don't worry none. I'm not going to hurt you, 'less you give me reason to."
She did so, and looming over her was a bald, dark-skinned man in a carmine-colored outfit that looked like a mixture of armor and an environment suit, missing only the helmet. He had a simple stripped down, polished pistol pointed at her stomach, and something about him set her on edge – beyond the gun, obviously.
"So, Corporal – is it Corporal now? You got put on leave, I suppose, but that changes things a mite." He gestured with the pistol as he spoke, eyes wandering a bit off of her, but she didn't doubt for a heartbeat that he wasn't paying attention. Ashley had seen bounty hunters in operation before. "I know you were setting up an ambush for me. Circled around once I figured it out. Woulda worked too, if it weren't someone clever like me, and you had someone covering your back, but that's not here nor there."
"Who are you?" she asked, following the obvious tack. He shrugged.
"Name's Early," he said. "I'm known to some. And I hear you're throwing a name around that I'm awful interested in." He held up a hand. "Don't play the 'don't know what you're talking about' line. Serenity. Reynolds. I heard it, clear as a lie."
She narrowed her eyes, and Early watched her, a smile appearing on his face that sent shivers down her spine.
"Though you looked familiar," he whispered. "Kaylee? That a familiar name?"
Ashley froze up, a sudden spike of fear lancing through her. How did this man know Kaylee's name? And worse, how did he know her face, at least well enough to identify her from her resemblance to her sister?
"Now, I got a powerful need to learn about Serenity," Early continued. "And I know you've gotten some measure of what they're up to, so let's make this very gentle, and don't raise no trouble, by having you tell me what I want."
The gun in his hand made a compelling statement, but the way he'd spoken of Kaylee, and the horrible smile he was wearing, set off way too many alarm bells in Ashley's head.
"How do you know my sister?" she asked, and he sighed.
"That question won't take you nowhere you'll like, darlin'," Early said. "Just tell me what you know about Serenity, and I'll be on my way."
That answer was precisely what she didn't want to hear, and it convinced Ash that telling him anything else would be a bad idea. She could read between the lines pretty well, and Early had something to do with her sister.
"Go to hell," she whispered, and his smile became a slight frown. He inhaled, and let it out in a frustrated snort.
"Darlin', heard a lot meaner things in my time," he said, and then the butt of the handgun smashed against her face.
It was fast. Faster than she'd imagined a man could move or strike, but he'd crossed the respectable distance between them and smacked her in the head in an eyeblink. She rolled with the blow, more out of reflex than anything else, and came up with a hard, straight jab into his midsection. He didn't even bother blocking, and her hand thudded against his chest.
Early didn't slow, and instead drove a knee up into her gut. She doubled up, and he spun around her, grabbing her by the shoulder and slamming her headfirst into the wall with frightening strength. The impact sent flashes across her vision, and she tumbled to the ground.
She tried rising, but he planted a boot against her back and pushed her down into the grime of the alley floor.
"Stay down," he muttered. "You ain't nothin' exceptional, so don't pretend you're a hero, darlin'. Otherwise I might treat you like I did Kaylee."
Everything went white for an instant, and fury sent her whipping around, throwing off his boot and slamming her torso into his other leg. Early wobbled, trying to regain his balance, and a sweeping, dizzied leg took him completely off his feet. He toppled to the alley floor, and she scrambled to her feet.
He was fast, though, and was rising almost as quickly as she was. She went for his gun hand, batting it aside with her left while her right arced in at his throat. He spun, taking the blow on his shoulder, and a backhanded chop slammed into her stomach. Ashley fell backward, and he did so as well, opening up the distance between them.
He sent a roundhouse kick directly into her temple that sent her back to the alley floor, dazed and insensate.
"Got more iron in you than your sister, I suppose," Early muttered, and she tried pushing herself up to her feet. A wave of dizziness sent her flopping back down to the alley floor.
"Hey, now what's happenin'?"
Early glanced up, as did Ashley, and they both saw the battered drunk from the bar lurching down the alley, a bottle in hand.
"I heard a scuffle?" the man asked, and then glanced down at the sprawled soldier. "The hell's goin' on here?"
"You're gonna want to leave right now," Early growled, and that friendly tone he'd been speaking to her in was replaced by solid ice. "This ain't none of your concern."
"Like hell," muttered the drunk, tossing the bottle aside and scowling at the bounty hunter as he lurched forward. "You gonna leave that girl alone or I'll make you."
Early sighed, holstering his pistol, but that didn't change any of the fear Ashley was feeling as she watched the bounty hunter stalk toward the drunk. She wasn't afraid for herself, but rather for the man who was walking into something he had no idea how to handle. She tried rising, fighting against the dizziness that was keeping her down.
"Last chance to go on in peace," Early offered.
"Piss off," the drunk slurred, staggering toward him. Early sighed again, and waited for the drunk to make his first swing. It was a wild, uncontrolled haymaker, that Early easily twisted around, and he stepped in behind it with a quick jab at the drunk's throat-
-and the drunk blocked, his haymaker arm lanced up in a counter-chop at Early's throat, followed his other hand grabbing the bounty hunter by the neck, his leg rising in a vicious knee, and then a spinning slam that dashed Early's head against the alley wall.
In the span of a single second.
"Go se," she breathed, and then the drunk was leaping over Early's sprawled form, looming over the soldier and extending a hand in a series of very sober motions.
"Come on," he hissed, and helped her stand up. She staggered to her feet, and he hurried her out of the alley past the stunned Early.
"Who the hell are you?" she asked.
"Long story," he said, and then chuckled. "Let's complete that cliché with an overly mysterious nickname. You can call me Echo."
"One-Three-Seven is still on the loose."
The old officer in the wheelchair peered across the room at the doctor, who sat quietly on the far side of the little table. He looked back at her, noting the myriad new lines across her face that had developed over the last two years.
"Yes," he said, after a moment.
"And thus far, seven Blanks are lost," she continued. "And I-One-One-Nine is loose. As are K-One-Two-Five. And I-One-Zero-Three." She paused, taking a sip from the tea at hand. "Four escapes. Six dead agents that you cannot replace. And we lost an Operative."
"One-Three-Seven killed an Operative?" the doctor asked, to which the woman shook her head.
"Worse, we suspect. Turned. Unstable animals, Operatives." She took another sip of her tea, and gave him a harsh glare. "We care little for the Kinetic or the two Inducers, but we have agents chasing them."
"Conventional?" he asked, and she nodded.
"Fully briefed. They know what they're up against. My concern is One-Three-Seven. After the mass-suicide two months ago when the Miranda Wave hit, the available Empath pool has dried up."
"We still have several working candidates, two of whom are almost lucid," the doctor said quickly, trying to at least regain equality in the conversation before it became a flurry of beratement. "But-"
"None of them have One-Three-Seven's potential," she cut in. "And she is still incomplete. I want her back and I want to see how far the augmentation can go. Tests have already shown continental-level awareness using enhancers. I want it raised to global."
"We can do that, if we bring her back in," mused the doctor. "And we have an idea." He handed her a dossier, and she looked through it.
"She kills four Blanks, each in pairs, and you recommend sending a single one instead?" she asked, raising an eyebrow. She knew the doctor wasn't stupid. "What makes this one so special?"
She did, and the frown slowly faded.
"Exceptional marks in close quarters combat, high marks in counterintelligence and espionage, excellent marks in operational planning," she mused, and then flipped the page. "And . . . oh. Ah. I see." She looked up, a slight smile creased her face. "Taking the devious tack, here, are we?"
"Quite," he replied, and she nodded.
"Very well," she said. "Deploy this Blank immediately. But if he fails, there will be repercussions, understood?"
"Good. Get it done."
She'd started to recover within a few minutes of their escape from the alley, and they paused in an open plaza in the middle of the docks, within sight of a small Alliance police station.
"Thanks," Ashley said, sitting down at the bench. She looked up at Echo, who crouched beside her, peering into her face and frowning.
"Looks ugly," he murmured, but she shook her head.
"I'll live," she replied. "Why'd you save my ass back there?"
"Same reason I suspect that bastard back there was beating on you," he replied. "Looking for info on Serenity."
"Everyone seems to be on this Reynolds guy's ass," she muttered, and he shrugged.
"Yeah, I'm fine, already," she muttered, waving him away, and he reluctantly stood up.
"You got a place to stay? A flat or a hotel or someplace I can take you?"
"No, took a passenger boat here from Persephone so I could talk with Morris," she said. "Soon as he gave me a lead I was going to find a place and then leave on the next ship out."
"Not much of a plan," he mused.
"Didn't plan it too much, I agree," she replied.
"I've got a ship," he offered, shrugging. "Got a few passenger bunks, if you're interested." She frowned, shaking her head.
"Just because you saved my ass doesn't mean I'm gonna let you take me home," she said. "Gotta at least buy me dinner, or a few beers, first."
"Fair enough," he replied. "We're both after the same thing, though. I'll at least let you stay there overnight, only decent thing I can offer you."
"Yeah, and that bastard will jump me the second I set foot off your boat," she grumbled. She leaned back on the bench, rubbing her head and mulling over the offer for a few minutes.
"Why do you want Serenity?" she asked. "You got a problem with Reynolds?"
"No," he said, shaking his head. "My interest is in a missing person. I think they might be able to help me with finding her."
"Huh, same reason I'm after them," she said.
"You're looking for your sister," Echo said, and she grunted.
"Yeah," she muttered.
"And you dug around in dives looking for clues about Serenity to find her," he mused, and she grunted. "Why didn't you just call her?"
"If I could, I would," she replied, glaring at him like he was a moron. "I don't know if she even has a Cortex address, and if Reynolds had anything to do with my sister's disappearance, I'm not going to wave him."
"Fair enough," Echo replied, and Ashley rose to her feet.
"Look, you got a bunk for me," she said, "I guess I'll stay. No guarantee I'll stick around for when you leave, though."
"Good call," he said, and they started off through the crowds, doubling back toward the docks. They both kept their eyes open and their heads on a swivel, watching to see if Early had recovered and was trailing them. None of them spotted the bounty hunter, and within half an hour they'd pushed through the docks to a series of small spaceport landing pads, screened off from the rest by security checkpoints, which Echo passed through with no trouble.
"You got money or clearance?" she asked, and he shrugged.
They continued on, until they found the pad that Echo's ship was berthed at. They passed through the outer doors into the landing area, and found a small, narrow, blade-like vessel painted a dark blue parked on the pad. It was only about thirty meters long from back to front, and most of the space was taken up by the cargo bay and the engines.
"So, this is your ship?" she asked as they walked up the ramp onto the cramped little vessel. The bay was dominated by a sealed, flight-capable hovercar, and on either side were nice, neat stacks of crates. The whole room was clean, with smooth metal paneling and shiny grating on the floors. It was too low for a catwalk.
"No much to look at," Echo replied, stepping around the vehicle. "I've got a couple of spare cabins on the second deck, you can take whichever one you choose."
"Right, but don't expect me to stay," she murmured, and he glanced back at her. "I never said I was going to come along with you just because you bailed me out back there."
"Nonsense," he said. "You're coming along with me because I can help you find your sister."
"And how do you know about Kaylee being connected with Serenity?" Ashley demanded.
"I've had my eye on Serenity for some time," he replied, walking around the hovercar and toward the rear bay doors. She hurried to keep up. "And I've been backtracking her crew and activities. I have no doubt they're involved with your sister's disappearance after Persephone."
"How long have you been tailing me?" she asked, an he paused at the stairway running up to the bridge level.
"A while," he admitted. "I've been on Serenity ever since that incident at Persephone. Had a hit on one of her passengers there, and been following leads ever since."
"You got news of my discharge and tracked me down?" she asked, and he nodded, before starting up the stairs. She followed him up onto the bridge. "You're not helping here with the whole trust issue," she called as she followed him.
"I'm just being honest," he replied. "The trail ran cold. You were my only lead." He stepped into the bridge, a small, spartan room with only two chairs and an economy of buttons. He sat down behind the pilot's chair, and the reason for that economy sprang to life: a holographic control display.
"Anything else?" she asked, and he turned around in the chair to face her.
"As I said, you're my only lead," he continued. "I've got a ship, and you've already seen I have money and enough Alliance authorization to bypass most security checkpoints with no fuss. It wouldn't be dumb to help each other out."
She stared back at him for several long seconds, considering her next words.
"Heard they were on Silverhold," Ashley finally offered.
"Silverhold?" Echo mused, frowning, and then he nodded. "Yes. I think I may know why."
"What do you mean?" she asked, eyebrows furrowing in suspicion.
"I know of this crew and their habits," Echo said quickly, annoyed at himself. "One of them may have sought out a particular man I know of on that planet. Perhaps we can get more information from him, or barring that, find out what they were up to out there."
He turned back to the console, and started manipulating the holo-controls.
"You should get some rest. There's an auto-med drone at the rear of the crew section, in the infirmary. It should take care of your head wound."
"Right," Ashley sighed, nodding, and started off toward the passenger section. Echo settled back into the pilot's chair, waiting until he knew she was gone. Then, he dug into his pocket. A moment later, he pulled out a pict-capture he'd taken nearly two years ago.
Her face was dull and pale, her dark hair limp and unkempt, but there was a rarity there, captured and displayed in one of the few moments of sanity she'd had during her ordeals:
She was smiling.
He stared at her picture for a long time, a smile of his own creeping over his face, and after a while, he sighed. He checked the clock by his pilot's console, and nodded. Early should have recovered by now and have picked up the trail leading back to his ship. He'd give him another half-hour to catch up before they'd take off. The bounty hunter would follow them, just like the good bloodhound he was.
And soon, they would all find Serenity.
"I'm coming. I'll find you," Sergeant John Garis whispered, looking again at her picture, before putting it away and starting the pre-takeoff checklist.
He'd find her soon, and then bring her home, and things would be better.
Author's Notes: Why yes, that is fecal matter hurtling toward the rotationary cooling device.
Also, in my head, Morris' voice was provided by BRIAN BLESSED.
Until next chapter . . . .