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Charity: Prologue: Apprehension

Zoë realized something was wrong when she heard her husband crying.

She was pulled out of the depths of sleep, dragged back into the world of the waking with that familiar gummy feeling in her mouth and eyes. His arms were pulled around her chest, under her breasts but over the swelling belly where their child was growing, but it wasn't the gentle, comfortable embrace he'd often given her in bed. His arm was pulled tight, hugging her against him, and the strength in his grip told her sleep-slurred mind something was off.

Then she heard the sobs, and felt the heat of his skin and face against the back of her head, and she turned over quickly, adrenaline blasting away the cobwebs.

"Wash?" Zoë asked, fighting back the spike of fear running through her with the ease of an old soldier.

Her husband's eyes were closed tight, but he was shivering in spite of the heat rolling off his body. In the dim light, she could see his face was flushed, and he was crying. One of her hands flicked on the lamp beside the bed, while the other shook him roughly.

"Wash!" she yelled, her voice loud and powerful in the tight confines of their bunk. She knew what was happening to him, something that they'd dealt with in their own quiet, private way for years.

Wash opened his eyes, and he jerked, moaning, arm still tight around her. His eyes flicked about for a few seconds, wide and terrified, before realizing where he was. She waited for his mind to catch up, for his grip to relax, and he closed his eyes again while his breath slowed down.

"Bad dreams," she said, embracing him and stroking the side of his jaw. It wasn't a question. "They were only dreams, baby."

"I know," he breathed after a moment, in that weary one of someone who'd been dealing with a long-term problem. He opened his eyes suddenly, and his hand went down to her stomach. "I didn't hurt-"

"No, the little one's safe," she assured him. Her hand ran up the side of his head, and she paused as she could feel the heat from his brow. "Baby, you're burning."

"No, I'm . . . ." he paused, and reached up, touching her hand and then his own forehead. "I am. I'm burning like Jayne."

That was good news. If Wash could make bad jokes, he wasn't that poorly off.

"You have a fever," she said, sitting up, and he let out a noise somewhere between a grunt and a weary groan. He didn't argue with her as she got up and moved over to the bathroom alcove. She opened it up, dug around inside the small medical drawer there, and produced a thermometer.

"Way too high," she said, after taking his temperature. "I'm getting the doctor." Wash mumbled, laying back in bed, tired but refusing to object, especially after the bad dreams he'd had.

Simon had been on watch on the bridge. He didn't know much about flying, but he knew how to read the instruments fairly well, thanks to some on-off training sessions with Wash at Mal's suggestion, and he could hit the ship-wide intercom and yell pretty loudly. He was surprised when Zoë came up to grab him, but the moment she told him what the problem was, he hurried to his room and grabbed his medical bag.

Down in the bunk, he ran through the usual tests while Wash laid back, opening and closing the parts that the doctor asked, while Zoë hovered nearby, a concerned mother bird made of steel and velvet.

"Well, he's running a fever, but there's not a whole lot of other symptoms," Simon said after a bit, taking blood from Wash's arm. The pilot gave him an emphatic grunt when he pinched his finger for the blood sample, but he didn't seem to have the energy to be snarky.

"From what I can tell, it's a variation on a local bacteria that has been passing around the Kaladesa system. Not dangerous, and treatable with standard antibiotics." He was preparing an inoculator as he spoke.

"You know about current diseases?" Zoë asked, to which the doctor shrugged.

"Public medical journals on the Cortex," he said. "Reading them was a habit I picked up while I was practicing on Osiris."

Zoë noticed that he didn't say "back home on Osiris" like he used to, and did her best to hide the slight smile she felt coming on at that. The young doctor injected Wash, eliciting another hammy moan from the pilot.

"And I'm going to have to go around to the rest of the crew too, to make sure none of the others have this, either," he added. "Enclosed environment and recycled air make a recipe for disease." She held out her arm as he prepared another injection for her, and didn't flinch at the pinch in her arm.

"It won't affect the baby, will it?" she asked, to which he shook his head.

"No, the child should be safe," he added. "Though since you're about four months along, you should be more careful when you leave the ship."

"Hey, Mal needs Zoë for adult supervision," Wash muttered, laying back in the bed and closing his eyes.

"If you feel any nausea, sickness, light-headedness, or upset stomach, come see me," Simon finished up, packing up his bag. "Have a good night. Or, day, I guess. I can't tell anymore."

After he vanished up the ladder and the room became theirs again, Zoë laid down in bed beside her husband. His skin was still flushed and hot from the fever, but she thought it might have cooled down a tiny bit since she'd last touched him. He lay there with his eyes closed for a while, even after she put an arm around his chest. She started to drift off to sleep, listening to the air pumps distantly, tirelessly hissing and rumbling.

"I don't want to go to sleep," Wash said, breaking the silence. She opened her eyes and looked up at her husband, who was staring up at the ceiling. "I . . . the dreams weren't pleasant."

"You want to talk about them?" she asked. He was silent for a few seconds.

"No," he said. "But they were . . . from the war."

Wash rarely spoke about what had happened to him before she'd met him. She knew he'd flown in the Unification War, and she knew he'd been shot down and taken prisoner. He never spoke openly about what had happened during his time as a prisoner of war, or of even who he'd been flying for. She suspected the Alliance, but she never asked. Whatever had happened, he didn't like to remember it.

But there were the dreams. Always late at night, and they always had the same effect.

Zoë guessed that may have been why Wash treated River like he did, and Zoë had more than a bit of empathy for Simon's position, too.

"I can find the Doc, get him to give you something so you don't dream," she offered. He shook his head, and closed his eyes.

"Tired," Wash whispered. "Need sleep anyway, even if I don't want it."

Zoë tightened her grip around his chest, and one of his hands rose, stroking her belly.

"We're right here with you," she assured him, and he smiled faintly.

"Good," he breathed, and then he was gone, falling back into slumber. Zoë kissed him gently on the forehead, nuzzled against her husband, and closed her eyes to join him.


It was edging toward twilight when they reached the outer edge of the settlement. The two armored carriers had approached with their topside weapons loaded and ready, and in the back of the transports, the soldiers were tense and ready for combat. They weren't expecting trouble, but they were prepared for it.

After all, this was the moon Victoria, and it was under martial law for a reason.

The transports were heavy, eight-wheeled armored personnel carriers armed with a pair of rapid-fire railguns, with a hull design that vaguely resembled an upside-down bathtub, though wrought of thick, ceramic armor plating and festooned with smoke grenade launchers, sensors, two gun turrets, and all the other attachments an infantry fighting vehicle carried.

"Sir, I got no movement," reported Corporal Evensky, manning the lead vehicle's forward railgun. "No lights, no one visible."

"No movement here either," reported Private Lewis, in the next vehicle, covering the other side of the settlement. "Place is quiet."

Inside the lead APC, Lieutenant Lowry frowned, checking the maps and the information they'd been given. This village didn't even have a name in the official registry. It consisted of about two hundred people, and with the exception of a small Blue Sun hydroponics facility three kilometers down the road, they were living off the grid – no external communications, no power, nothing. They were hicks living out in the country foothills. The only reason his patrol was coming out here was to establish Alliance authority per the usual occupational operating procedure: arrive with a show of force to remind the locals who was in charge on this moon, and then move on to the next town.

Except the town was dead and quiet. At this time of day, the space between afternoon and night, the village should have had a lot of movement, and lights should have been on in all the houses. People gathered for dinner in the evening, or were at the local wherever-it-was that people went after hours to have fun, depending on their religion. But there was nothing.

"Thermals?" Lowry asked, and second later, the responses came back, saying the same thing. "Nothing on EM, either?" Again, a negative.

"Okay," he said, making a decision. "First squad, we're going right down the middle, into town. Second squad, dismount here and fan out, be ready to advance into town on my order. Do not fire unless being fired on."

The transport rolled forward, while the second opened its rear doors and disgorged a ten-man squad of armored troops, almost invisible in the deepening night with their dark blue-black armor. The first vehicle rolled past the outer series of houses, well-built but unsophisticated wooden dwellings that had been there for a while. No one came out to look at the noisy APC as it chugged into the middle of town, the engine rumbling like a small, lost avalanche looking for its mountain.

"Place is quiet as a grave," whispered PFC Canale, on the rear gun.

"Think they're scared of us?" whispered Evensky.

"Would have seen someone by now," Lowry cut in, watching the data feeds. "Stay calm. Don't go lighting anything up." He felt sweat gathering on his palms, beneath his gloves. They should at least be getting heat signatures from some of these houses. They moved deeper into town, approaching the sheriff's office at the center of the village.

"Hold on," Evensky suddenly said. "Got residual heat, coming from the office."

"Movement?"

"None."

"Spotlight, sir?"

"Keep it off for now, don't want to spook anyone."

Lowry frowned. Was this an ambush? The moon was under martial law because of unrest, and he didn't doubt the possibility of Browncoat holdouts hiding on the planet and taking advantage of the chaos.

"Dismount," he said, making the call. "Second squad, move into the village, meet First at the center of town. First squad, move out by fireteams and check these buildings."

The rear ramp opened, and the troops stormed down the ramp, weapons at the ready but not raised to engage. Lowry followed them, stepping out into the cool night air and away from the stuffy, oppressive heat of the APC. The squad fanned out, the two five-man fireteams stepping out to check the buildings. It was getting dark, and hard to see without turning on optics or the spotlight.

"Squad, flares," the squad sergeant ordered, and immediately harsh red-white light erupted from both fireteams' positions, illuminating the wooden buildings. The light made them seem to be made of carved bone.

Carved bone with bullet holes in them.

They couldn't see them in the dim light, and the sensors didn't show them clearly, but now that they had good illumination, they could see that the houses all along the road running through town were riddled with bullet holes.

"Spotlight," Lowry hissed, even as the troops tensed up, rifles rising to their shoulders. The main lights on the APC flicked on and began to sweep up and down the road, illuminating the homes in stark clarity. Some of the houses were showing larger wounds than others, with rooftops caved in by weapons fire from overhead. Some showed scorch marks where lasers had sliced through walls like scalpels.

And now they could see bodies, through open doorways and windows.

"Evensky, heat?" Lowry called.

"Uh, sheriff's office, rooftop," the soldier called back.

"First team, secure that area," the squad sergeant ordered. Lowry nodded, agreeing. The sergeant was on the ball. He keyed his microphone.

"Second squad, be advised, we have signs of conflict inside the village. Weapons free, but do not shoot any civilians. Open fire only if you see a weapon."

He received an acknowledgement, and directed the other team to begin searching the buildings by pairs. A couple minutes later, the first fireteam called back.

"Sir, I think you need to see this," the corporal said, and Lowry hurried over to the office.

The inside was shot to hell, and the body of a slain deputy lay behind the desk. He'd been blasted repeatedly by several different weapons, his body almost unrecognizable as a person. His fingers still tightly clutched a shotgun, and his mouth hung open, the upper part of his skull charred from multiple laser beams.

A ladder in the armory – the empty armory, he noted - ran up to the rooftop. Lowry clambered up to the top of the building, and found a treated wooden rooftop with a couple of cheap solar panels bolted onto the top. The fireteam had secured all corners of the roof, with the corporal kneeling over another body.

"What have you got, corporal?" Lowry asked, getting close. The body bore a wound that looked like a ripping puncture, like he'd been killed with a large, heavy knife. Blood stained the rooftop all around him.

"Heat came from the body," the corporal said, looking up, pushing his thermal goggles off his eyes and onto his helmet. "Residual. This guy died after everyone else, I'm guessing."

Lowry held up a flare and lit it, kneeling beside the body. The man was in his mid-thirties, dressed in the vest and rugged trousers and button-up-shirt of a local. His mouth hung open, not-quite-dried blood leaking from it. He wore a priest's collar around his neck.

He was clutching something in his hand: a piece of paper. Lowry reached down and pried it from dead fingers. It was stained with blood, but there were a series of numbers on it, scrawled in shaky letters.

"Cortex contact number," Lowry said, frowning, and read the rest of the note. Beneath the number were four hastily scribbled words.

Lancaster - Forthill - Derrial Book

Lowry looked to the dead preacher, then to the note, and then out over the massacred town, and felt a deep shudder run through him. A tinge of fear ran through him.

"First and Second Squads, mount up," he hissed quickly, trying to control the apprehension running through him. "We're moving out."

Something horrible had happened here, and he had no intention of sticking around to find out what.


-


Author's Notes: If the prologue wasn't an indicator, Zoe is one of the central characters in this arc. (of course, this being Forward, River is still the main character....) Obviously, something bad is going on.

As for that bit at the beginning of the chapter....no comment. :D

I'm not going to say much else, except that this particular arc is probably going to be one of the most....merciless ones yet. Bad things are going to happen here.

Until next chapter . . . .