Clickclickclickclickclickclickclick.

"What - fire!"

Another volley of clicks answered the order. Several soldiers unshouldered their weapons to stare at them in confusion.

The officer surveyed the scene, and his eyes narrowed. "Who or what are you?"

"Introductions are in order, then," said the man in black. "I am generally known as the Master... universally."

"Bayonets!" roared the officer, his hand going for a sheath at his belt. His hand flashed up bearing a wicked combat knife.

The Master sighed, and pressed another button on the device. "A very poor decision."

The officer noted the lack of compliance, then looked around in astonishment. "What - what the hell is this?"

All of his men were still holding their weapons, with varying looks of annoyance or panic as they tried to let go of them. Even though some were flailing them quite hard, their hands wouldn't budge.

"You would have been better off had you surrendered."

The nearest men looked away from their weapons, and started forward -

An orange glow enveloped all of their guns, and a crackling yellow energy arced from them into each soldier. To a man, they collapsed to the deck, bodies spasming as the energy continued to play over them. The officer just stared, jaw slack.

The Master flipped another switch on the device. The weapons stopped glowing, the energy stopped flowing, and the men went very, very still. The officer's jaw shut with a click.

"By the way, Mr. Reynolds, you may wish to tell the woman above us to place her weapon on the floor. I doubt you'd like her to share in their fate."

There was a deliberate clunk from the walkway above; Zoe had heard him.

Book took a step forward, staring at the bodies. He knelt down and grasped one of their wrists, checked for a pulse, then laid it back down. He looked up at the Master. "What have you done?"

"I dealt with a problem," said the Master.

"Problem," said Mal. "Like the problem of a whole pile of corpses on my ship?" He clutched his forehead, trying to calm down; still guys with guns on him behind. His other hand opened and closed over his empty holster.

The officer turned toward the Master. "You - you- ," he said, backing toward the TARDIS. "The mission will be completed!" His hand darted down, and he hauled the Doctor to his feet. He pressed the knife to his throat. "Out of my way. Now!"

The Master frowned. "That doesn't improve your position. No one threatens the Doctor but - "

The Doctor's eyes opened fully. "What..." He seemed to disregard the blade at his throat, instead focusing on the Master. "You! I might have known you were behind this mess. Where's Jo?"

The Master tensed. "You didn't know - Miss Grant is missing?" A smile quirked the edge of his mouth, and he settled back to a relaxed pose. "Really, now. Is it my fault if you let your pets run off?"

"I don't care - "

A thin wail reverberated through the hold, startling them. A blurred figure in blue fell from a vent, landing with a thump atop a covered crate, then rolled onto the ground.

River sat up, clutching her head. "Hurts, 't hurts so bad... Burning burning hate rule kill drum drum DRUMS!"

Book stepped forward, reaching toward her. The Doctor tried to, but was held back, the knife biting into his neck.

"Don't move. Nobody move!" the officer said, his voice now edged with hysteria.

Mal looked at River, then the Master. The latter had turned his full attention on her, a frown on his face. "Who is this?"

"I..."

River stood up, her face gone from agony to blank and unemotional. She turned to return the Master's gaze. "I know you," she said, her voice now a flat monotone.

She started walking toward him.

"River, stop..." Book tried to grab her shoulders, but she seemed to flow through his grip and keep moving.

They all stared as River padded up to the Master. She stopped, then it seemed to register there was someone in front of her. She looked up.

"What is your name, child?" said the Master.

"Did you bring bagels?"

The Master's brow furrowed. "That is an odd re-"

"BAGELS!" River's pallid, placid features suddenly melted into a raw, red contorted rage. "YOU WERE SUPPOSED TO BRING THE BAGELS!" She jumped up and down. "NO ICE CREAM LOGS!" She clenched her fists and stomped.

"Wh-"

The Master started to step back-

River seized his arm and bit down, hard.

"Ah!" The Master shook his arm, but River stayed firmly attached. "Don't stand there, you fools!" he shouted to his men. "Get her off- let go!"

Two of the men stepped forward, grabbing River's shoulders. Her flailing fist caught one square in the nose, but they managed to pull her off. Just as they did so, her body went rigid for a moment, then limp.

Her head fell forward, eyes open but staring into nothingness.

"Enough of this!" shouted the officer, dragging the Doctor backward. He turned his eyes to the Doctor. "I order you to get me out of here in your machine!" He stopped with his back against the TARDIS, about to turn, when the door opened behind him.

The muzzle of a pistol pressed into his side.

"Drop the knife and let him go," said Sergeant Benton.

The officer squirmed a bit, but did as instructed. Benton then stepped back and motioned him toward the center of the bay. He glared at him, then walked slowly over toward where the bulk of the bodies of his men lay.

The Doctor, still cuffed, squatted down and picked up the knife. He flicked the blade around to saw at the plastic, and in a moment his hands were freed. He strode quickly over to where River was being held.

"Stay back, Doctor! I'm warning you-" said the Master.

"Oh, do be quiet," said the Doctor. He reached out to River, grasping her temples, and closed his eyes. He shuddered, and they snapped open.

"Put some mental shielding on, man! Have you no decency?"

The Master frowned. "She's been trespassing in my mind? How could-"

"She's a broken psychic. Your sordid thoughts have rendered her catatonic!"

"Stop interrupting me!" said the Master. "Perhaps she should learn a lesson then, and you... you need to tell me what you're - "

He reached toward the Doctor -

CRACK!

Mal's fist knocked him off his stride, sending him staggering sideways and back. The small device in his hand clattered onto the floor.

Mal turned and snatched a pistol from the man beside him, and turned it on him. His usual gun-hand hung by his side, hurtin' like hell.

Gotta check in with Simon after this. Mighta broke something.

"You leave my crew alone. Make another move toward them, you'll pay."

The Master wiped at his mouth with the back of his hand. "Watch yourself, Mr. Reynolds," he said. "You - and your crew - live by my sufferance alone."

Wash's voice cut in over the intercom. "Heard a lot going on down there, and maybe this isn't the time to bring it up, but we're landlocked."

Zoe, still at the top of the stairs, hit the intercom button. "I wasn't aware we had much left to lock, dear."

"Well, there is the small matter of a port patrol hovercraft arriving in a few seconds." A pause. "Ah, guys? This one ain't local."

"Feds," muttered one of the men.

Mal glanced over at the strangely panicked face of the officer, then over at Book, who gave a quick nod. He made a standing-start dash, grabbing River from the hands of the suddenly distracted men and charging toward the doors into the rear of the ship.

"They're too close. Get her into the TARDIS!" shouted the Doctor over the whine of the arriving patrol ship.

Book paused, but then wheeled and charged through the open door, shutting it behind him.

The men standing with the Master looked back at the landing ship. The main door was already lowering.

They looked at each other and nodded. A couple shrugged.

"Ruttin' Feds."

To a man, they put their weapons on the ground, lay down and laced their fingers behind their heads.

"What are you doing?" said the Master incredulously.

"What's it look like? We're givin' up."

"You can't just give -"

"Better'n dying."

The Master seemed to consider this, then turned with his hands upraised to face the squad of Federal soldiers charging up to the gangway.

"On the ground! Now!"

Mal and the Doctor were on the ground with the others; the Master remained standing.

A soldier came up to him, pistol drawn.

"I need to speak to your commanding - "

The soldier grabbed him by the shoulder and shoved down. He was raising the gun to point into the his face, when he caught his eye. He froze.

"As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, I need to speak to your commanding officer."

Other soldiers ran past to secure the hold. Another man, wearing lighter body armor with no helmet, walked up behind the soldier.

"Lao! Why isn't this one on the ground!" He smacked the soldier on the side of the head, and turned to the Master. "You've got two seconds to get on the ground before I-"

"One second and two fingers is all I ask. I don't want to hinder you, but I'd rather you not make a grave mistake."

The man paused, and the Master reached into his jacket with a thumb and forefinger. He extracted a black leather billfold, then flipped it open.

Mal saw the man stiffen. "Sir-"

"It's quite all right. These men here," he said, indicating Jed's former crew, "are merely public-spirited citizens-"

The man had snatched the billfold from the Master's hand. "If this is a forgery," he said, pulling a scanner from his belt, "Articles of Defense say I can execute you right here."

The Master grasped the top of the billfold as the scanner swept over it. "What do they say about threatening a superior, then?"

The man stared at the monitor a moment, then turned a hooded, stone-faced gaze up to the Master. "Well, sir, there are several interesting passages. I'm sure you know them."

"Indeed I do. I can also tell you'd doubt my credentials even now, if I stated that it was an honest misunderstanding, that you were only doing your duty."

The man didn't reply.

"Even though it, in all likelihood, was - eh?"

"Arrest this man, he's an impostor!"

The officer whose men lay in the hold behind him shouldered past the Master. He turned and glared. "He murdered my entire unit!"

Before anyone could react, he stepped over and seized the Doctor by the arm, pulling him to his feet. "I demand this man be remanded to my custody! As a deserter - "

The Doctor yanked his arm away, a glare aimed at the officer.

"This man is obviously delusional. I have never been a member of any military. I never will be!" He brushed off the sleeve of his coat. "If you mean to carry through with your kidnapping, you'll regret it, I promise you!"

The man leveled a gaze at the officer. "You know, I don't even recognize that uniform, much less what the you're talking about. How about you just - "

"Sorry, sir, but he does check out." An armored man handed him a scanner. He looked at it, then looked back to the officer.

"Colonel Nathan Dyson. Pardon me, sir." He stepped back. "What does the Allied Intelligence Unit find necessary to investigate here?"

"I gave my orders, Commander," said Dyson icily.

"You gave orders to..." he looked over at the Doctor, "turn an obvious civilian over to you, which I don't have authority to do. I have a direct line to the local Sheriff division, but they're over on - "

"Insubordination! I - "

"As far as your other order, sir," said the man, "You were both checked from the main database. If his credentials are in question, then so are yours."

Dyson grabbed the first scanner from his hand. "What the hell are you..." His voice trailed off. He stared at the monitor, then at the Master, his mouth opening and closing.

"Well, sir," said the man, in a helpful voice, "I don't think it'd be a good idea to hinder an Inspector General in his duties, do you?"

"But - bu - " He seemed at a loss for words. He turned to the Master. "My men..."

"Are stunned," said the Master. "Experimental device. Mind you, they need immediate medical attention to avoid nerve damage."

The commander stepped back, raising a radio to his lips. "I need a ten - no, twelve man med evac to sector twenty-seven J!"

Dyson turned on his heel and started walking back further into the hold. As he passed, Mal heard him muttering something.

"Thirteen pullout. Code seven seven iron blue."

There was a flash. The bodies of Dyson and his men shimmered blue and yellow, then vanished.

Everyone went still.

A soldier near the stairs gave a disbelieving, "小面包圈神."

There's gonna be panic, an' I ain't gonna be trampled, thought Mal. He pushed himself to his feet and started to turn-

A rifle butt clipped the side of his head, staggering him.

"The hell-"

The second hit was better aimed. There was a starburst of pain, the hold turned sideways. Falling...

He didn't feel the floor when he hit.


He was lying on something soft.

He flexed his hands, feeling stiffness as he did so. Hands on a blanket. So, someone had got him outta there. Didn't feel like his bunk, or one o' the tables in the sick bay. He opened his eyes, wincing at the light flare, and looked at the opposite wall.

White. Very clean, sterile, very much not his ship white. The kinda white that screamed 'hospital.' Some of the implications of that word caused him to make a noise that mighta been louder, if his head didn't hurt and his throat not been so dry.

Who the hell was gonna be payin' for this? His ship... hospital bills could take 'em right outta the sky!

"Ah, you're awake." The Doctor carefully marked his place in the book he was reading, then set it on a side table. "The attending doctor said he couldn't actually do anything further until you woke up."

"Why-"

"Are you here? Interesting question, most people want to know where they are first." The Doctor chuckled. "Simon said that you needed better care than he was able to give, and Inara asked one of her local contacts to clear a bed." He paused to fill a glass from a pitcher on the side table and hand it to Mal, who accepted it, chugged it down, then handed it back with a mostly-stifled belch.

"Thanks for the info," said Mal, "an' I'm guessing I'm gonna be needin' a lot more. First things first; how long I been out?"

"I would say about three days," said the Doctor.

"You've been here the whole time?"

"No, the crew is on a rotation to watch over you. I volunteered a shift."

"My crew... doin' that?" Mal considered this. "Nice o' them."

"I believe the main concern was to make sure no-one came in to kill you in your sleep," said the Doctor."Rather morbid, if you ask me."

"Smart, though." Mal tried to sit up straighter. "How long ya been here?"

The Doctor pulled out a fob watch from a pocket. "Seven hours, it appears the one who was supposed to take over is late."

"I was busy," came a voice from the doorway. Jayne walked in, surly plastered across his face. "I'm here now, ain't I?" He looked over at Mal, and snorted. " 'Bout time you were up."

"You know who's payin' for all this?" said Mal.

"Do I know? Hell, I am," said Jayne.

Mal stared. "Right."

"It ain't nothin', either. I'll be expectin' repayin' in - hey!"

A short blonde woman in a shimmering blue mini-dress and platform heels stalked into the room and smacked Jayne on the arm. "Don't do that! You know it's just as much mine as yours or anyone's. You know what Mr. Kathan told us!"

Jayne closed his eyes, a seriously pained look on his face. "You really coulda stayed outta this."

Mal looked between them, the pain in his head quite prominent. "Jayne, thought I told you not ta bring strange - "

The Doctor cut in, his voice quiet but hard. "Captain Reynolds, may I introduce my assistant, Josephine Grant."

"Really. This the one ya been..." Mal broke off with a ragged cough, taking the glass from the Doctor and gulping down another few gulps of water. "This the one you've been looking for?"

"Yes, indeed," said the Doctor.

"You can call me Jo," said the girl, smiling. She looked over at the Doctor, a concerned look on her face. "Shouldn't we call a nurse or something, now that he's awake?"

The Doctor looked at him anew, a worried look creasing his face. "That might be best," he said. "I'm glad to see you're past the worst, Captain Reynolds, but I think you should rest now." He refilled his glass.

Mal motioned him closer. "You're leavin' me here with Jayne? Really?"

The Doctor nodded. "I understand your concern. However, I believe I was able to convince him that since you're the one who pays him, it would be best to keep you alive."

"Really?"

The Doctor nodded, then turned away. He turned back. "Even if he decides otherwise, Jo should be able to handle things."

Mal laughed, then coughed. "Good 'un. Really, how..."

He looked up, and the Doctor's face was grave.

"I'm not joking, Captain. If Mr. Cobb really tries anything, which I highly doubt, but if he does..."

He smiled.

"Jo's handled far worse. She can take care of herself."

He patted Mal on the arm.

"I have repairs to return to. Ms. Frye is expecting my input, and I would hate to disappoint her. Your ship needs a captain. Get on your feet soon."

"Yeah," said Mal.

As the Doctor left, the doctor came in, and Mal had a whole new game to play.

He wrestled himself further up, trying to ignore the pain this shot through his head and down his spine.

"Feel fine, doc. How soon am I gonna be checkin' outta here?