This version of Blackout Zone has been extensively rewritten, expanded, and streamlined as of January 2016. If you began reading the story before then, you will want to start over at the beginning, or certain plot points won't make sense to you.
In the timeline of the 'verse I'm using, River went to the Academy early in the year 2515. The events of the series begin in the year 2517.
Reference is made in this story to River drawing matryoshka dolls. We see her doing this in the episode Ariel, near the end.
This is not a exactly a romance, though it does contain a great deal of Zoe/Wash. In the interest of full disclosure: I do occasionally hint at some Kaylee/Inara and some Mal/Simon, but it is in no way rampant, especially as this is decidedly pre-canon.
This chapter was beta'd by Anbessette and KrisEleven. Many thanks
And finally: I do not own the genius that is Firefly; that honor goes to Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy.
Translations: Are below.
Ni ta ma de. Tianxia suoyoude ren. Dou gaisi—Everyone under the heavens ought to go die
Jian tal de gui—Like hell
Zhen de shi tiancai—An absolute genius
Chapter One—The Code
The planet Osiris, November of the year 2515
If anyone had asked Simon Tam what he would fight to the death for, he would have replied: His sister and his home, in that order. Not that Simon would ever trust his own skills in a fight, and at the moment, as he sat in a bar full of outlaws bristling with guns and knives, he was regretting that deeply. In a small and rather macabre attempt to keep himself calm, he was doing his best to diagnose his own condition.
Heart rate—highly elevated, entire cardiovascular area working overtime. Motor control—slightly shaky, unusual as the patient regularly works as a trauma surgeon. Muscles—tensed for action, receiving energy boost from adrenaline. Nervous system—high activity in the amygdale. Tentative diagnosis: Patient is scared out of his wits.
Simon didn't know why his contact, whose identity was as of yet unknown, had insisted on meeting in a blackout zone—one of the few sections of his home planet Osiris where the occupants were not constantly tracked by security cameras. Technically blackout zones were illegal, and as Simon hadn't done anything even mildly illegal in his entire life, being here held more tension for him than plunging his hands into a mess of bloody entrails. But if his suspicions were right…well, his parents hadn't listened to him about the letters he'd gotten from River, the ones that made no sense. Maybe they would after this.
"Move on out! Come on, let us through!"
"There'll be time enough for negotiating when you can prove you have the coin."
"I don't trust her, sir. I wouldn't..."
Simon gripped his drink and tried to shut out the noise. The bar's better-off residents were a mismatched collection of underground merchants, the men in oft-darned suits, the women in knockoffs imitating the latest fashions, all escorted by iron-faced guards who made no attempt to conceal their weapons. Mingled within the crowd were pickpockets ready to take advantage of the guest who looked more prosperous than usual, and Simon was keenly aware he fell into this category.
"I'll take another, and one for my friend here..."
"Ni ta ma de. Tianxia suoyoude ren. Dou gaisi!"
"That ain't nearly enough for what you're askin'—"
"More for you?"
Simon jumped as he realized he was being addressed by the bartender. "Um, no thank you, I'll just…"
"Wise decision," said a voice in his ear. A tall, slender woman with a few strands of her wavy brown hair escaping from a scarf settled herself on the stool next to Simon. "One for me, though, if we're going to talk business."
Simon swiveled around and stared at the professor who'd hammered the essentials of trauma surgery into his head. Of all the people to be in a blackout zone—"Dr. Mahdavi? You—you're my contact?"
Robina Mahdavi surveyed him through sharp eyes. "Simon Tam. You were never prone to such unlawful behavior in MedAcad. Save, of course, for that incident with the statue of Hippocrates."
"I've…changed. And so have you, it seems. I had no notion I'd see you here."
Dr. Mahdavi looked grim. "You obviously do not have access to my Alliance profile. Unless I want to leave the Central Planets, I'm stuck in places like this, where they can't track me."
Simon frowned. "I thought you'd gone to be with your family on Londinium."
"Yes, I believe the Alliance put it out that I retired there for my health with two dogs or some such. All fei hua, of course. I've never been better and I prefer cats."
"But why? I don't understand."
"I'm an outlaw now for doing the same thing you're trying to do. Find out information about the Academy students." Mahdavi accepted her drink from the bartender. "My nephew was accepted to the same program your River was. One day, his letters just—stopped."
"His parents had no idea. They were out of their minds with worry. I got suspicious and did some investigating—wrote letters to the Academy, and when they weren't answered, started going to underground contacts."
"Did you get any answers?" Simon sat forward.
Mahdavi shook her head. "No. Nobody knew. But the Alliance found out somehow, and, long story short, they hauled me in on a trumped-up charge of treason."
"What?" Simon stared. "Treason? You're serious?"
"Deadly serious. If TALENT hadn't gotten me out, I don't know what would have happened."
"If who hadn't gotten you out?"
"It's an organization. I can't give you details about them—I promised I wouldn't."
"But if the Academy's going to that kind of lengths to keep what they're doing a secret…" Simon tried to keep his breathing regular. "That can't be good. You said you never found out what was going on, but—isn't there anything you can do?"
Mahdavi sipped her drink. "Not much on my own. But I can try to put you in contact with people who might know more than I do."
"Could you really?" Simon gripped his cup. "I'd do anything to get information about—"
"Simon. You need to think about this."
"What is there to think about?"
"A lot." Mahdavi leaned forward on her elbows. "You're a law-abiding citizen. You've got a good position in society. A job you love. You're able to walk down the street without the fear of being dragged off to jail or some psychiatric institute, or getting shot."
"What are you saying?" Simon demanded.
"I'm asking you how much you want to keep all that. Because if you care about your life here more than you care about your sister, there's no point in my getting in touch with the TALENT people."
Simon shook his head. "I have to know if River is safe."
"All right, then. It'll take time, though." Mahdavi sighed. "You're a good man, Simon. Try not to become a dead one."
"Excuse me—do you know if Dr. Ahuva Song will be back anytime soon?" Simon gripped the folder he'd brought with him, containing River's letters. Letters which he still had no evidence were in code.
The medical student Simon had stopped glanced down the hallway. "She's supposed to be back now. I don't know—oh, here she is."
Simon's best friend from MedAcad rounded the corner, wearing a lab coat and glasses and smelling strongly of chemicals, and broke out smiling. "Simon! Impeccable timing. I was just going to have to start writing that grant for Dr. Zhou, and I'm determined to put that off as long as possible. Come in."
"Which grant?" Simon stepped into Ahuva's office as she held the door for him. As usual, the place was a mess—scattered papers, old lab beakers, and garden pots filled with stat viewers scattered across every surface.
"Epidemiology research. I won't bore you with the details, since I know you prefer messing around with internal organs." Ahuva stepped inside and shut the door. "If Dr. Zhou makes me beg for money one more time, I'm putting anthrax in his evening martini. The fool seems to think he runs this hospital."
Simon laughed. "He does run this hospital."
"Jian tal de gui he does. If that man fell in a hole he'd spend his time writing articles on how the rest of us should pull him out of it." Ahuva shook her head. "So how are you? Still carving?"
"Yes. I've made a few matryoshka dolls lately, on the lathe at the studio after work." Carving soothed Simon, and the expert hand-eye coordination he'd developed as a surgeon certainly helped. And he needed all he could to keep his nerves in order lately. "I haven't painted them yet, though." A memory of River drawing a row of his finished matryoshka dolls swept over him, and he clutched the folder more tightly.
"So is this a social visit, or…?"
"No. Not exactly." Simon took a deep breath. "I need your help."
Ahuva frowned, obviously picking up on his anxiety. "What's the problem?"
"River's the problem. She's been sending me coded letters."
"Didn't River go to that government program? The elite one?"
"That's what we think. What we were told." Simon bit the inside of his mouth, cursing himself for not making more inquiries into the Academy while River was still with them. "But she never comes home. We aren't supposed to wave her. It makes the separation easier, they say. All we get are letters and they don't make any sense. They don't even sound like her."
"But you visited, didn't you?" Ahuva propped up her lab glasses. "Talked to other families who were sending their kids there? Any of them have this problem?"
"We didn't visit. They didn't offer, and because it seems we're idiots, we didn't insist. I did some research after the fact and there's nothing on the Cortex. Nothing. I dug through the Alliance official site for five hours, and I've been writing asking to see her. No replies."
"Coded letters, you say? Did you bring them?"
"Of course." Simon handed her the folder, praying she would see something he'd missed. Breaking code had always been Ahuva's hobby, and he knew he could trust her.
Ahuva flipped through the pages. "I'm guessing it isn't River's habit to misspell words."
"She started correcting my spelling when she was three. I don't remember the last time anyone managed to prove River wrong…about anything."
"Hmm. Isn't there some Earth-That-Was legend about how being too smart makes the demons jealous?" Ahuva crinkled her brow. "Who are the D'arbanvilles again? I'm not so high-society as you Tams."
"The D'arbanvilles don't exist. At least, our family doesn't know them, if they do."
"Simon." Ahuva peered at him seriously. "If that's the case, did you ever think you might not want to hear what River's trying to tell you?"
Simon blinked. "No. Why wouldn't I?"
"Never mind. I'm most likely imagining Reavers where there's monkeys with leprosy." Ahuva tossed the folder back to Simon, plucked a pen out from the nearest chipped beaker, and handed it to him. "I have an hour or so. Circle any unfamiliar proper nouns. On all the letters. Then we'll get to work."
"All I want to know is if you're all right. Nothing more."
Simon looked at his mother's face in the wave screen. "I am fine. Never been better."
Regan Tam sighed. "Simon, your father and I, we know you're committed to your position. But it won't make you a bad doctor if you take some time off once in a while."
"What makes you think I'm not?"
"Dr. Stuart says he has to order you not to come in for longer than your contract covers."
"Your contract covers up to sixty hours a week." Simon's mother creased her brow. "And he said you work on wood carvings over your lunch hours."
Simon bristled. "I'm allowed to—"
"You know your father thought it might be compulsive."
"Dad is wrong. My carving is a hobby. It helps me cope when patients don't make it."
"And Aidan and Joanna say you go straight home afterwards, never join them for drinks or socialize like you used to—"
"I'm tired after work, not cutting myself off from the world. I went to visit Ahuva Song today."
Regan smiled a little. "Your friend from MedAcad? That's nice." The smile turned to a look of worry. "You do know she wouldn't be suitable as—"
Simon had to suppress a sigh. He loved his parents, but the more time he spent reattaching severed limbs, the less time he had for their social snobbery—especially when it came to his romantic life. "For the last time, Ahuva would be perfectly suitable for me, if there was anything between us. Which there isn't."
"You spend a lot of time together."
Prying. Another thing with which he was growing less patient. "Because she's my best friend. One of the few girls I can actually talk to without saying the wrong thing every five seconds." Simon paused. "I brought her the letters River sent us. To see if—"
"Oh, Simon, you said you'd stop it with that nonsense."
"All I want to do is be sure." Simon took a breath. "Look, if there's a code, Ahuva will find it. If she doesn't, we'll know there's nothing to worry about. I'm getting a second opinion. Being realistic, as you want me to."
"This is insane." Regan shook her head. "Maybe you needed to say something to us. We're your parents. We're River's parents. But you cannot bring someone from outside the family into our private business like this."
"I left her copies of River's letters, not our banking statements!"
"I'm worried about you, Simon! Six months ago you would never have—"
"Six months ago I didn't have to worry that I'd never see my sister again!"
Simon knew he'd gone too far as his mother's face went tight. "If I thought we would never see River again," she said coldly, "I'd move heaven and earth to get her back. It is not fair of you to imply I love her less than you do, Simon."
"I'm sorry." Simon gripped the rim of the table. "I just—I'm scared for her."
"But that's what we're trying to tell you. There is no reason to be scared. And when you see River next, I'm sure she'll tell you that herself."
Everything in this office, from the hard steel chair upon which Simon now sat, to the enormous, gleaming desk that separated him from the Alliance official, was designed to intimidate—and it was doing a marvelous job. Even at his first major unassisted surgery, Simon couldn't remember ever having been this nervous.
The official's smile did nothing to reassure him. "I'm sure you're wondering why you're here."
Of course I'm wondering why I'm here, you practically grabbed me off the street on my way home from work…Simon tried to keep his face impassive. "I'll admit I am."
"Well, let me enlighten you." The official stood and made his way around the desk, placing a hand on the back of Simon's chair and standing far too close for comfort. Although Simon knew that invading personal space was a standard interrogation procedure, this made him want to run away. "You're worried about your sister."
"Not—worried, exactly." If what Mahdavi had said was true, letting this official know all of what he thought was a bad idea. "More—concerned. Because we haven't been allowed to see her for so long. It doesn't seem standard."
"Your sister is not standard," the official said warmly. "I'm sure I don't have to tell you, of all people, how exceptional she is."
Try to build rapport—another standard interrogation procedure. Simon was determined not to fall for any of it. "Yes, River's extraordinary, but she's still a fourteen-year-old girl away from home for the first time in her life. It's only natural she should want to visit us. It's only natural we should want to see her." He shut up. He couldn't afford to make the official more suspicious than he obviously already was.
"Perfectly natural. But I'm sure you'll understand—not only is your sister far from standard, but the same is true of the Academy. To get the kind of education she deserves—that she requires—this separation is necessary."
"But why is that?"
The official waved off the question. "As I've said, your concern for your sister is perfectly understandable. But given your questionable behavior, I'm afraid you cannot be allowed to see her."
"Can't be allowed?" Simon gripped the edge of his chair, feeling the metal bite into his hand and wishing the official would stand just a bit farther away. "And what do you mean, my questionable behavior? I've never broken the law in my life, my record at the AMI is impeccable—"
"But there was a period of approximately two hours where we have no record of you on our public surveillance cameras—and you were nowhere near your place of residence when you vanished. You were, in fact, quite near a blackout zone."
Were they really watching him that closely? "How did you get clearance to see that? I thought the security cameras—"
"Given the inquiries you made over your sister's location—" the official walked over to the desk and picked up a printout of what Simon recognized as one of the letters he'd written asking for information about River "—the local Alliance made the decision to allow a one-time examination of your movements. It won't happen again...provided, of course, that you permit your sister's education to continue uninterrupted."
Simon very nearly opened his mouth to yell that he'd do no such thing until he had answers. He stopped himself just in time, remembering Mahdavi's words. Long story short, they hauled me in on a trumped-up charge of treason. "Of course. I understand. I wouldn't do anything to jeopardize River's experience at the Academy."
"Good man." The official patted him on the shoulder. "I'm sure when you see the results of your sister's training, you'll agree the separation was worth it."
"River really is zhen de shi tiancai." Ahuva ruffled the edges of River's stacked letters. "I would never have found this code if I hadn't been looking for it."
"So there is a code."
"Oh, yes. But..."
"What?" Simon tried to tamp down on the sick feeling rising in his stomach.
"This is—this is dangerous." Ahuva bit her lip. "If this means what I think it does, River's in trouble—and so are we, just for knowing about it."
"Let me see them." Simon held out his hand.
Instead of giving him the letters, Ahuva looked him straight in the eye. "Have you ever been on a penal moon?"
"Well, I have, for research, and it's making me think I should tear these up right now. Because once you see them, it'll set you on a path straight there, and Simon, I know you aren't weak, but you'd probably lose your mind in prison."
"I'll lose my mind if I lose River." Simon dug his nails into his palms. "Give me those letters, Ahuva. Please."
Wordlessly, Ahuva handed over the folder, and Simon opened it to see the printouts. The original writing was barely visible under a swarm of scribbling, but the deciphered code, scrawled in red pencil, was clear enough: the same words, over and over again.
They're hurting us. Get me out. They're hurting us. Get me out. They're hurting us. Get me out...