Interlude Five: Tables and Chairs

The corridor leading to the Director's office was much like everything else relating to the Academy: metal fixtures of polished, stainless steel, blank white walls, and reflective, mirror-smooth white ceramic tiles. It was like the sickness that permeated the main facility had infected the offices of the administration. A necessary sickness, of course; Admiral Havelock would not have backed the contracts that set up the projects surrounding the Academy in the first place if she had not felt that.

Just like the disease on Miranda. That had been necessary. Disastrous, but necessary.

But this particular disease was spreading too quickly. The first four escapes were bad enough, and the ensuing mass suicide among the survivors had severely hampered operations. But three more subjects had now escaped.

The Director was going to provide answers or heads. If not enough of either, then his own would suffice.

Admiral Havelock guided her hoverchair down the hallway past the receptionist's desk. She didn't say anything to the Admiral, instead simply buzzing her into the security room beyond. The two men flanking the office door in the antechamber wore sharply tailored suits, and carried sleek submachineguns. They did nothing to hide their purpose, and watched the Admiral behind reflective sunglasses.

She smiled as she guided her chair toward the door. The worst thing about getting old was that people stopped thinking you were dangerous. Doubly so when you were crippled and unable to accept augments to repair the physical damage. But these men treated her with respect, as they knew what she represented. They held her at the door for a moment, one guard speaking into his earpiece, and then the door opened behind them. She floated past the respectfully-vigilant bodyguards into the room beyond.

The office was the same as she remembered it: simple, straightforward, utilitarian. Chrome and glass dominated everything: a black-tiled, reflective floor, glass tabletops held up by steel legs, a desk with a glass top and steel frame, transparent wall-gardens, a vast glass bay window overlooking the rolling expanse of terraformed jungle beyond. Nothing soft, save the black leather chair that was facing the window.

The Admiral frowned, as was her wont, when she saw that chair turned away from her. She slowed the hoverchair, letting it settle to the floor and silencing the faint whirring of the engine. Aside from her, the only person in the vast office was a man standing next to the desk, arms clasped behind him, face hidden behind a flat, reflective mask of polished black plastic. He would have resembled a riot policeman, were he not wearing a simple, equally black suit of material not too dissimilar to the armored space suits most mercenaries or bounty hunters wore. Boots, gloves, mylar with ceramic plating underneath, but no sidearm.

Havelock assumed the man did not need one.

"Director," she said, looking away from the bodyguard and toward the chair.

It spun around, and she scowled at the sudden motion. The director of the Academy was not prone to such melodramatic nonsense.

But the slender man with the thin features and the roguish half-smile sitting in the Director's chair was not, in fact, the Director.

"Who are you?" she demanded. The slender man's smile grew to encompass both sides of his face, and he reached up to slick back his dark hair. His skin was dark, but she couldn't place ethnicity.

"Always wanted to do that, but you had to ruin the moment, Havelock," he said. He held up a hand as she was about to repeat her question. "My name is Mamjudar Whitman. Former Head of Operations with the Asylum Initiative at our lovely factory for mentally-unstable superweapons. Now, acting director of all Academy operations."

He inclined his head toward her.

"Mr. Whitman," she said, sitting back, and processed the shift. The Asylum. Her scowl deepened as she recalled the details behind that particular aspect of an already distasteful secret.

"Where is the Director?" she asked.

"Fertilizing up to three continents right now, depending on wind speed and direction," Whitman replied with a shrug. Havelock's eyes narrowed, and he grinned at the Admiral. "Please, Havelock. The same thing happened to Doctor Mattias, didn't it?" He raised his eyebrows. "Or are you just miffed that I dealt with an incompetent the same way you did, but without your input?"

"He was your-"

"Boss, director, head-moron-in-charge, yeah, yeah, I know," Whitman said. "And under his direction we had seven escapes, three within the last couple of weeks, due to the fact that someone cannot keep a lid on one of their rogue agents. You know, that asshole, calls himself 'Nemo' now, ring a bell?"

Whitman stood up. He was tall, almost gaunt, and the suit he wore emphasized his lean build as he strode around the desk, opposite the masked, motionless bodyguard. Havelock watched him carefully, her chair's defense systems armed and ready.

"Anyway, long story short, he fucked up one too many times, I got tired of him, and I strangled him and threw his corpse in an incinerator. Gally over there dealt with a few other loose ends," Whitman continued, nodding to the bodyguard. "So, now I'm in charge of the Academy."

He turned to her and grinned.

"Aren't you just thrilled?"

"The man in charge of experimenting on the unstable rejects of the Cerberus Initiative being in charge of the entire program?" Havelock said, settling back in her chair. "Not quite."

"Okay, yeah, I might have been the guy in charge of that ball of fun," Whitman said with a nod. "I may have handled operations, signed off on the experiments, did a little bit of cutting, but that's beside the point."

He shrugged again as he stared out the window at the terraformed jungle below.

"The previous Director was a moron , and he got worse and worse with each successive screw up. First there was One-Three-Seven, then One-One-Nine, then the mass suicides, then the next wave of escapees. Garis has been off on his wild goose chase for months now with nothing to show for it. Something had to give, or you were going to shut the program down."

He turned away from the bright green landscape below and shrugged again.

"So I killed him and took over the project," Whitman said, and he smiled again. "I like this project, and I don't want to see it go down."

"You are dangerously unstable, Mr. Whitman," she said, and he shrugged.

"You can call it crazy. I call it decisive. But I, and by extension, you, have direct control over Merlin," he said, turning back to the window, "and right now six units are operational. Including Galahad over there."

She froze, looking back toward the faceless bodyguard standing impassively beside the desk. Her skin started crawling. She didn't realize just what she had been looking at, but now that she did, she had to fight the urge to keep from reactivating the chair and moving across the room.

"That thing is a Merlin?" she asked, and he nodded, his grin threatening to swallow his ears.

"It's the crowning achievement of the Asylum Initiative," he replied. "I took the washouts and I made them work. Well, the ones that survived."

He turned back to her, and walked toward the desk.

"Merlin can do what you wanted the Cerberus assassin protocols to do, and more," he explained. "And unlike the Cerberus units, they're not restricted to baseline human psychical capability. I'll have a full report, complete with videos, operational records, and blood spatter analysis later tonight.

"And I've also finished the layout for the next phase of Cerberus," he continued, and Havelock perked up at that. "Yeah, figured out the kinks that my predecessor was working on for years. The benefits of having an actual scientist instead of a bureaucrat in charge. I've got some of the units installed now, but we need a strong Empath to finish it out. You know what I have in mind, of course."

"One-Three-Seven," Havelock said, and he nodded.

"Oh, and the best part," Whitman said, settling into his chair. "Now that we've got the baseline Cerberus units online, we can begin sending signals."

He leaned over and a holographic keyboard appeared. His fingers played over the display, and a few moments later another hologram appeared over the desk between them, showing a line of identical brains. Numbers and graphs and faint lines of color marked each one, and she peered at them for a few moments.

Somewhere in the conversation, she realized, she'd become less worried and more interested.

"How long?" she asked, checking the progression and running the math.

"Eight months," Whitman said, leaning back. "It won't matter if Garis finds One-Three-Seven at that point, because we will own her."

"How extensive would the control systems be?" Havelock asked. "Can we rely on it to keep any of them from escaping again?"

"Admiral, once we send that signal," Whitman said, eyes bright with glee, "If I were to order her so, she'd walk in here, tear everything off, and get on her knees for me. There won't be a person left in there, just a warm body that I - sorry, we will be able to turn to your utopia project."

"Graphic," Havelock said, "But adequate."

"Aw," Whiteman pouted. "Just adequate? What do I need to do, buy you a pony made of diamonds?"

"Not necessary," Havelock said, shaking her head, and she reactivated the hoverchair. "Just get me those reports."

"Yep, you got it, Admiral."

"And Mr. Whitman," she added, stopping.

"Yes, ma'am?" he asked.

"I do appreciate your initiative now that I am more confident in your competence," she said, pivoting the chair back toward him. "But I still doubt your sanity. Nothing personal, but anyone associated with a project as necessary but twisted as this one has to be somewhat mentally questionable."

"Your point?" Whitman asked. Then, "Ma'am?"

"I was close to shutting down this operation and reappropriating all assets into Naval Special Research Command," she continued. "But I am willing to give you a chance. The situation on the Border and Rim is getting more intense, and the political situation in Parliament is becoming worse as the impeachment trials progress. The last thing anyone wants is another Miranda-scale public disaster."

She let that hang in the air for a moment, and he nodded.

"I do not want to, but if necessary, I will take a flamethrower to the whole thing," she finished, and pivoted back toward the door. "Do try to keep me from doing something drastic. I would hate to fertilize three continents with your ashes, Mr. Whitman."

"I understand, ma'am," he replied, his tone flat.

"Excellent. Good day, Mr. Whitman."

Nemo leaned over the balcony overlooking the scrubland, a light wind rustling the scraggly leaves on the thin trees. The local vegetation had not taken well to the planet's terraforming, but it struggled on, and he could see healthier strains springing up after the last seed-drone pass had deposited a new, genetically-stronger generation.

"They've doubled deployment in the last two weeks," called Heaton, his words drawn out in classic Border drawl. "I've recorded more than three times as many violent incidents between Alliance military personnel and the local populations."

"The civil unrest on Victoria has continued to spread," added Collins. Her clipped, refined tones bespoke of her Core heritage. Osiris, if Nemo recalled correctly. "We theorized that Wade's death would stabilize things, but they've only grown worse. It's now obvious that her insanity had longer and wider-ranging effects than we expected."

"That's a good thing," replied Shurlten. The general's accent was a mixture: bits of American Northeast, Scottish, and Russian. "More unrest is more chaos. We need chaos."

"More chaos means more military presence in the Border and Rim," Collins replied. "We lost a conventional war when we had a regular military. We won't last weeks with a major military presence on every Border and Rim planet."

"The Alliance can't spread its fleets across hundreds of Border and Rim planets," Shurlten pointed out. "More deployment means more strain on their resources and a greater pull on their logistics. An overstretched enemy is a brittle one."

"I do not see any fleets under our command to capitalize on this brittle enemy, General," Collins replied, her tone cold. "Heaton, how many troops do we have, period?"

"Two million," he replied. "But they are scattered across a hundred worlds, and would barely be enough to hold a couple of planets in the Rim."

"That's why we need more chaos and unrest!" Shurlten objected. "We can't foment rebellion if everyone is happy with the Alliance's presence! We need entire worlds in revolt!"

"And that will result in orbiting battle fleets and deployments of tens of millions of enemy soldiers per world," Collins pointed out. "We cannot fight that."

Nemo listened to the argument with half an ear. It was the same discussion they'd had for the last few months, echoed over and over. Those three were the most vocal of the eclectic leadership of their group, and he found their discussions inane at best and embarrassing at worst.

Why did I join them? he asked himself. The answer came immediately.

He could never return to the Alliance. Not after he realized just how far he'd fallen. Devotion to that government had come from a belief that they were doing the right thing. Distasteful, at times, but necessary. But his complicity in the deaths of millions and the creation of the Reavers - complicity by distant association, but still complicity - had been . . .

He still didn't know how to describe it. He had asked Captain Reynolds how it felt to go on when one's entire world was not simply broken, but annihilated. His answer, as typical, had been blunt but surprisingly relevant.

Reynolds had told him that if he stayed where he was - beneath Serenity's thrusters - he would never find out. And the truth was, if he had stayed in place, paralyzed by indecision as to where to go and what to do, it would have ended him.

He had sought these people out and given them his sword because he had to keep moving forward.

But these tireless, directionless meetings.

"Excuse me for a moment," one of the conspirators said, and a moment later a stocky, heavily-built man was leaning on the wooden railing beside Nemo. The two men stared out over the scrub that was barely separated from their provincial townhouse by a low stone wall. Manicured gardens and green lawns stood directly below.

"Madness," muttered Hammond, and Nemo nodded. "Can't stand being in the room with them when they're like thus. Shurlten can take it, but I can't."

"Some soldiers can handle bureaucracy," Nemo mused. "Others have no use for it."

"If I could get back in the field, I wouldn't mind," Hammond said, shaking his head. "But we haven't done anything in the last year. Not since Obrin . . . You know."

Nemo nodded, remaining silent for a moment, listening distantly to the circular arguments of the leadership behind them.

"I need some more of your men," Nemo said quietly, and Hammond nodded.

"How many?"

"Maybe thirty," Nemo said. "Airmobile assault training will be needed. Preferably spec-ops and recon, but if you cannot acquire them, I can work with regular airborne."

"What do you need them for?" Hammond asked.

It was a good question. The last few operations he had carried out with Hammond's special operators had resulted in heavy losses. Particularly the mission on Silverhold, but he had not expected to run afoul of Reynolds' crew. That had been a horrific coincidence.

"Extraction and fire support for an operation," he said. "Ideally, the mission should not require them, but I need a team in case matters become complicated."

"I might find a Blank or two, if this is Academy-related," Hammond suggested. "We don't have the canvassing capability of the Alliance, but we can dig some up if needed."

"Not required," Nemo said.

"Do you need anyone else?" Hammond asked, relaxing a bit. Nemo knew that he didn't want to get anymore involved in the psychic aspect of this covert war than necessary.

"No," Nemo replied. "I already have the specialists I need."

The interrogation room was standard-issue, the kind he had seen and worked in countless times before. Most of his best work was done here, sitting, talking, and explaining until the subject broke down. Physically-aggressive coercion was . . . Avoided, if possible.

She sat on the opposite side of the desk, and as he walked in, he examined her. There was a careful neutrality to her posture, and her eyes analyzed him as he strode into the room and sat down across from her. She did not appear nervous or worried; either she was certain she could get out of her current predicament, or she was familiar enough with such rooms that they no longer concerned her.

"There is not much time," Nemo had said. At that point in time, he had not adopted that identifier. At that point, he still had not had a name at all, beyond "Operative."

"Busy schedule?" she asked, hands clasped on the table before her. They were cuffed, but she would have been no threat without them, and they both knew that.

"Urgent, would be more accurate," he replied. Most times he would enter with a datapad or binder, and use it to reference information, or just to make the subject sweat while he perused it. He did not need information, however, and had no time for theatrics this day.

"The crimes your current identity are accused of are thankfully minor," he said. "In fact, there is a high likelihood of you being assigned to a mental ward instead of prison, but that has yet to be determined."

He met her eyes, and saw strength in them. This was not a weak woman.

"Your other aliases, however, will likely face much more severe sentences, assuming you are identified properly. Piracy. Murder. Grand larceny. Weapons trafficking. Vandalism."

"It was an ugly moon," she said with a smirk. He raised an eyebrow. She continued.

"If you know what I've done under one name and can find the others, what use is there in denying it?" she asked. "I know when I'm caught. You want me to make a plea bargain? Get me a lawyer."

"I'm not offering you a bargain," he said. "I am offering you a job."

"I see," she said, frowning. She sat back, brow furrowing. "The catch?"

"No catch," he replied. "I am offering you a clean slate. A complete wipe of your criminal record. However, the task I require of you will be of high risk."

"Those are the best kind," she said, her smile returning.

"You must make the decision quickly, however," he said, and glanced at his watch. "I do not have much time."

"Pressure tactics won't work on me, hon," she said, that smile growing. "I specialize in working under pressure."

"Not pressure, but urgency," he replied. "I suspect in less than an hour my capacity to remove you from this facility and wipe your records will be revoked."

She narrowed her eyes, and nodded.

"This has to do with Miranda, doesn't it?" she asked, and he nodded. She glanced around the room. "And all the recording devices are disabled?"

"Compatriots, in the observation booth," he said. She frowned again, and slowly nodded once more.

"You got a deal," she said. "Not like I have much choice."

"We follow the solar winds to our destinations, and rarely have much choice," he replied, and stood. "I have already made the arrangements. But we must leave swiftly." He nodded to the observation booth, and the door slid open. "The viral wipe will begin executing by the time we have left the prison."

"What's to stop me from running on you first chance?" she asked as he escorted her out of the room.

"Nothing, save me," he replied, and she slowed, looking up at him. He thought he saw a shudder run through the woman.

"Okay, that's good enough," she said quietly, and they made their way down the hallway. She flexed her wrists, and the handcuffs clattered quietly. "Can you get these off? Never liked wearing them."

"Once we are outside," he replied. "You will have to trust me on that."

"No, I don't," she said, almost under her breath.

"Trust as you wish," Nemo replied. "As long as you do the task we assign you, I do not care."

Hammond and Nemo walked back into the conference room, taking their seats. The circular argument between the conspirators had wound down, and they began moving on to other issues with their nascent, likely-doomed rebellion.

"Nemo," Collins said as he settled into his chair. "Report."

She eyed him with distrust, and her words were an order. The thin, stark-boned woman had made it clear from the beginning that he was not precisely trusted, even though he sat on their councils and carried out critical missions. Then again, he had killed her subordinate. Lee Obrin had earned his execution, but Collins had not personally forgiven Nemo for taking the man's life. He could see hate in her eyes.

But such was his lot; even as part of the Alliance there had been many who looked upon him as if he were a near-rabid attack dog, as opposed to a man. In truth, he was not certain if their scorn was misplaced.

"The three we rescued from the transit convoy last month are healthy," he reported, "and most importantly, mostly sane. They have not been taken to the primary facility, nor undergone severe neural modification, nor were they injected with any of the augments or chemicals that we have been alerted to. I still have them in isolation and observation for their own safety, but they are grateful. I suspect they will turn to our side with some convincing."

"The oldest one is just sixteen," Shurlten said, and Nemo nodded. The general scowled, and gestured for him to continue. He didn't need to say anything else. They were desperate, and turning to teenagers with even minimal telesthetic capability was only mildly distasteful considering their situation.

"I have located Priad," Nemo continued. "As well as the Inducer protecting him. Contact with them is being planned, but we must be cautious. A frightened Kinetic can cause terrible damage, especially with an Inducer in proximity."

"A frightened psychic of any type can cause such destruction," Collins murmured. "Your inability to contain Wade proved that much. The violence on Victoria is only growing thanks to her influence."

Nemo nodded, and when Shurlten opened his mouth, he held up a hand and shook his head. The general swallowed his protest. Of the fourteen men and women on this secret council of rebellious conspirators, he was the one who showed him the most respect.

"And Tam?" Heaton asked.

That was a critical question, not the least of which because he knew far more about current events than the rest of the council.

"I have located her," Nemo said, picking his words carefully. "I do not know if she will be receptive to us. Obrin's rash actions may have alienated her."

"We need her," Collins said, shaking her head.

"Her abilities, or her testimony?" Nemo asked.

"Yes," Collins replied, and Nemo nodded.

"I will attempt contact," he said. "But she will be reticent to assist us. I believe she wishes to be left to herself."

"She doesn't have a choice," Collins said. "Find her. Recruit her."

Collins's bluntness reflected the opinion of a specific subordinate of hers, a man whom Nemo had killed several months back. She didn't seem to understand the difficulty of securing the girl's allegiance. All she saw were tools and risks. He nodded again, and sat back in his chair. The meeting progressed to other issues, and he said nothing more.

He didn't tell them of what had happened on Persephone. Of what was happening now on Persephone, relating to the very trump card they were desperately and irrationally bent on recruiting into their fold. They seemed to obsess over that girl; everyone seemed to be obsessing over that girl, despite her limitations.

But the Council couldn't do anything about it now, and if they knew what was progressing on Persephone right now - the screaming, the bloodshed - they would just get more worried and irrational. He would keep it quiet until he had resolved the situation.

One way or the other.

Author's Notes: This interlude was rather short; it was originally the prologue for the next episode, but the next episode kept growing as I outlined it and wrote components of it, and I quickly realized that the content in here was not directly connected to the next episode's storyline. So I split off the parts most suitable to an interlude to make up this vein of pure, gleaming foreshadowing.

Aside from showing some indications as to the wider world, I also realized that, in reviewing the rest of this monster of a story, that I had not actually established the villains much. Sure, we had episode-specific badguys, and hints of the larger overarching story and interconnected nature of the various episodes - especially in how Nemo seemed to keep showing up everywhere Serenity went - but I realized that we didn't know who the villains were. We had the wheelchair-bound Admiral bossing around the Academy personnel, but no name or motivation for her. We had Nemo and the nebulous Browncoat resistance-remnant, but nothing on their plans or what they were doing. We had the academy's agents, but no inkling of the leadership.

So, I decided we had to get our real villains, the big bad evil guys, and the sinisterly vague councils of vague planning revealed. Plus, there were aspects of the next few episodes and the greater story arc that absolutely had to be established.

And in case the diamond pony reference wasn't clear, yes, Mr. Whitman is inspired by Handsome Jack. In fact, the Academy and general and Blue Sun as a whole are likely going to have aspects of the Hyperion Corporation, though the humorous sociopathy might be toned down and played a lot more seriously. I personally keep imagining Blue Sun as somewhere between Hyperion and Armacham from FEAR.

Until next chapter . . . .