Zoe and Wash never had a chance to say goodbye. Or did they?
At Persephone docks, Zoe and Mal pushed the laden supply trolley up Serenity's cargo bay ramp, joining Jayne and Kaylee who were already unloading theirs.
Nodding to them, Mal asked, "Got everything on your list?"
"And more, Cap'n," Kaylee replied, wiping a dark smear on her forehead. "Got some good ghost stories too for the next time we go camping."
Jayne grunted as he unpacked the heavier crates. "They was so busy spinning yarns they hardly noticed we was robbin' them from under their noses. Got these supplies dirt cheap."
Zoe glanced at Mal. "Well, ain't that interesting. We heard some good tales as well. I wonder what's got these people so spooked?"
Mal was already unloading crates from his cart. "I don't know, and I ain't aimin' to find out. We need to keep our heads low after the ruckus we've already caused over Miranda."
"Goram, Mal," cursed Jayne, laying down his crate and wiping the sweat from his face. "It's been two months we've been layin' low. A man needs to start standing up before he forgets how."
"We've got a job here," Mal replied, "though for who and to do what I don't know yet. What I do know is that it's going to be done quietly."
"And where's the fun in that?" Jayne muttered, continuing with his work.
Simon came down the stairs from the upper deck.
"Doctor!" called Mal. "We got you your medical supplies just like you asked. What say you give a hand with the unpacking?"
"Simon!" Kaylee grinned and walked over to Simon, planting a kiss on his lips and a smear of grease on his face.
"Did I hear something about ghosts?" Simon asked, wiping his face.
"Sounds like I missed something interesting."
The voice came from a silhouetted figure standing at the entrance to the cargo bay. Mal couldn't make out who it was. "Can I help you, friend?" he asked.
"You could start by telling me a ghost story." The figure stepped towards the crew.
Zoe dropped the crate she was holding and collapsed in a feint. Mal whipped out his pistol and, afraid for the first time in his life, aimed it at the man. Jayne cursed and grabbed a knife from his belt.
Looking at his crewmates, Wash asked, "Was it something I said?"
Simon stood, paralyzed. "Wuh de tyen, ah."
"Doctor," said Mal, regaining control, "see to Zoe. Jayne, hold your fire." Then, gripping his pistol more firmly, Mal moved a step towards Wash. "Who are you?" he asked.
"Um, Mal, why are you going to shoot me? And why is my wife lying unconscious on the floor?"
"It sounds like him," Jayne chimed in. "But it can't be, unless it's his..."
"That's enough, Jayne," Mal said. "Now," directing his gaze at Wash again, "I asked you a question. Who are you?"
None of them had noticed River, wearing a loose, checkered dress and bare feet. She stepped forward, past Mal towards Wash.
Simon stood up from where he'd been tending Zoe. "River! Stay back!"
"Doctor," said Mal, grabbing Simon's sleeve as he dashed to catch up with his sister, "I told you to attend to Zoe."
Simon stood rooted to the spot, unable to take his eyes off Wash and his sister.
River walked up to Wash then slowly circled him, all the while looking at him carefully and poking him occasionally with her index finger. "It's him. He's out of time," she said, finally.
"That's all we need," growled Jayne. "The gorram girl's done gone fong luh again."
"Hush," said Mal. "River what do you mean?"
Ignoring him, River asked Wash, "What time is it?"
"What time is it? Um, about two in the afternoon. Am I late? Does Mal shoot me if I'm late?"
"What date?" clarified River, still circling him.
"You don't know?" Wash asked back. His eyes focussed alternately on her and Mal's pistol. "We just landed this morning to let Inara off for her business with a local tycoon."
"That was three goram months ago!" Jayne retorted. "A month before he..."
"Enough!" commanded Mal, shouldering his pistol. Walking up to Wash, he asked, "How is this possible?"
"Um, Mal, I've no idea what any of you are talking about, but my wife is still unconscious on the floor. Do you mind?"
Without taking his eyes off of Wash, Mal said, "Doctor, please take Zoe and Wash to the infirmary. Check them both out. Especially Wash. Jayne, you go with them. Wash, if you are Wash, you're confined to the infirmary until further notice."
When they had left the cargo bay, Mal turned to River, and asked, "Do you know what the tyen shiao-duh is going on?"
"It's really Wash," explained River. "He's stepped through time, from three months ago to now."
Still stunned, Mal tried to process this. "How is this possible?"
"I don't know. But maybe we're not the only ones to have visitors from another time. You said the people you met were telling ghost stories? Maybe they weren't ghosts. Maybe there are others who are lost in time."
Kaylee finally spoke. "Cap'n, I'm not understanding any of this. The only thing I do know is that I've never been so scared."
Mal went over to Kaylee and put his hands affectionately on her shoulders.
"I'm scared too, if you want to know the truth of it. But the only thing we can do now is focus on our work and hope that whatever's happened will become clear. Can you do that?"
Sniffing, Kaylee blinked and tried to smile. "Aye aye, Cap'n. I'll go ahead and get these supplies down to the engine room."
"That's a girl. Meanwhile, I'm going to look and see if we've received a wave from our mysterious customer. River, see if you can access the Cortex. Learn what you can about this."
Alone on the bridge, Mal saw that a wave had arrived. It was audio only, encrypted. He played the message. The audio was processed, making it impossible to recognize the voice.
"Captain Reynolds. Please meet me at the Sea and Star at 1600. Come alone. You will find it well worth your while."
The Sea and Star was dark, noisy, and dangerous. The kind of place where you'd best keep your head down if you were planning to keep it on your shoulders. Not the best place for a business conversation. Which perhaps made it the perfect place. Mal was intrigued. He'd arrived a few minutes early and had been here for half an hour. Sipping his drink, Mal calculated that his contact was already here checking him out, making sure he'd come alone.
A large man in a hooded cloak sat at the table. His face was largely hidden, but he pulled the hood back slightly as he turned in Mal's direction.
"Sir Warrick Harrow," Mal said quietly into his drink. "Just about the last person I expected to see sitting at this table."
"First condition. My anonymity in this."
Mal nodded slightly.
Sir Warrick didn't look at Mal directly. As he spoke, his eyes slowly traversed the tavern, looking for spies. "There have been unusual... incidents on Persephone recently."
Mal nearly choked on his drink. "You're telling me."
"It's bad for business. This needs to stop before news spread throughout the system."
"The question is, how?" Mal replied.
"My sources have determined that the Alliance is experimenting with some type of new technology. They seem to be using Persephone as a guinea pig. We've located the building where the experiments are likely being conducted. Beyond that, we know nothing."
"They never learn," muttered Mal. "So why come to us?"
"Someone spilled the beans on Miranda," Sir Warrick whispered. "Someone who isn't overly fond of the Alliance. Someone very determined and resourceful." Sir Warrick looked directly at Mal. "I don't know who that was, but I need someone with... similar qualities for this job."
The crew assembled in Serenity's kitchen area. Mal, standing at the head of the table, asked Simon, "Doctor, what's your report?"
Simon looked at Wash, then Mal. "DNA tests are positive. He is indeed the Wash we knew. Know. And he's in perfect health."
Turning to Zoe, Mal asked, "What have you told him?"
Mal paused. "I see. And Wash, what do you have to say about all this?"
"You mean about the fact that I'm dead? Less than thrilled would sum it up pretty well. And confused, like everyone else. Does anyone know what I'm doing here?"
"Not yet, but your being here and our job may be related. Turns out the Alliance may be up to their old tricks, operating some new technology here, using Persephone as guinea pigs. Our customer thinks that technology could be behind what's been going. He thinks it should be stopped. At this point, I'm inclined to agree."
"And are we going to do this out of the goodness of our hearts? Again?" asked Jayne. "Or is your secret customer going to pay?"
"Oh he's going to pay. And handsomely. And yes, Jayne, he's good for it."
"No." It was Zoe. "No, we're not going to do a damn thing about it, except take Wash with us and leave this place."
Everyone turned to look at her. Without blinking, she continued. "I've just got him back. I'm not doing anything that might change that."
"Zoe," Mal began. But Wash interrupted.
"Sorry, Mal, but let me." Turning to his wife, Wash asked, "So, do I get a say in this?"
Blinking back tears, Zoe replied, " Of course you do, baby."
"Good, 'cause what I say is, nobody has the right to play God. What happened to me, to us, well it sucks. But it happened because I made a choice. We both did. But I didn't choose this. It's not right. No matter what happens, it has to stop."
Zoe said nothing for a moment, then cupped Wash's face with her hand. "I know."
They'd overpowered the guards at the building entrance and left Wash and Zoe to keep watch. Now, crouched to the side of the door to the main lab, Mal nodded. Jayne kicked in the door and charged into the lab, fanning to right, rifle at the ready. Mal followed, wheeling to the left, pistol cocked at the end of his right arm. The room was empty save for banks of equipment and one man who turned in surprise at the commotion. Before the man could utter a word, Jayne shoved a forearm against his throat and pressed him to the wall.
Holstering his gun, Mal walked up to the man, who was gurgling under the weight of Jayne's arm. He was past middle age with long, unkempt, dirty grey hair. Tall, thin, he wore a drab, baggy shirt and pants that were much too large. His grey eyes, framed by thick, shaggy eyebrows, were bulging.
"Let him talk, Jayne," ordered Mal.
Jayne grunted and released the pressure on the man's neck a fraction.
"What's the meaning of this?" he sputtered. "You have no authority to..."
"On second thought, shut him up." Jayne complied. "Now, friend," begin Mal again, "You're going to speak when spoken to and answer our questions. Got that?"
The man's head nodded.
"Good. First question, what's your name?"
The man opened his mouth opened wide, made eye contact with Jayne, and closed it again. Then he replied in a surly voice, "Ignatiaf. Doctor Raeson Ignatiaf."
"That's good, Raeson. Now, you're going to tell us what in the name of suo-yo duh doh shr-dang is going on here."
Ignatiaf laughed a long, hysterical laugh. "Tell you? Explain to you? If I tried for weeks, months! you would never understand. No one understands. Just me."
"Jayne, why is it do you think that mad scientists laugh like that? Is it genetic or just the way they're brought up?"
Clamping his forearm on Ignatiaf's throat again, Jayne replied, "Guys like this, they're so brain damaged they don't know how stupid they are."
"Can't argue with that. River!" Mal called to the hallway, "Come have a look at all this and see what you can make of it."
River fairly floated into the room, glancing at displays, touching the odd button, until she settled on one workstation and browsed through several screens of data."
"Jayne, our friend seems to be trying to say something."
With the pressure on his throat eased somewhat, Ignatiaf laughed again. "That little girl? You think that little girl has a hope..." but the rest of his sentence became gurgles as Jayne tightened the pressure on his throat.
River turned from the workstation to Ignatiaf. "Soap bubbles. You've created soap bubbles."
"And what the jung chi duh go-se dway is that supposed to mean?" growled Jayne.
Ignatiaf's eyes widened, however, and River knew she was right. "He's treating time like a film of soap in a ring. He's trying to poke through it, but instead he's just blown bubbles out of it. Time bubbles. They've floated away, scooped up people, and dropped them out of their own time."
"And how do we stop it?" asked Mal. "How do we set things right?"
"The bubbles depend on the energy from his equipment. According to this, he has energy transformers in level 1 of this building. Destroy this equipment and those transformers, and the time bubbles will burst. Theoretically, everyone affected should snap back into place."
"That works for me. Jayne, set the charges. I'll keep an eye our deranged friend here."
Ignatiaf laughed long and hard. "Go ahead, destroy my work. A lifetime of sacrifice. But there's no point, don't you see? For I shall simply build another. And another!" And once again, Ignatief let loose a long, frantic laugh.
"I reckon you would, at that," said Mal with a sigh as he drew his gun and aimed at the scientist. The laughter ceased as Ignatiaf froze, staring at the gun.
"As a rule," said Mal, "I don't kill an unarmed man."
Ignatiaf relaxed and let out a breath.
Mal pulled the trigger. "Of course, some rules are more like guidelines."
Turning to River, he said, "Let's get out of here."
Jayne exited the building where Mal and the others were waiting, passed the detonator to Wash and nodded. When he reached Mal, he said, "If this is your idea of doing a job quiet-like, well I guess quiet ain't so bad."
Holding the detonator with his right hand, Wash pulled Zoe to him with his left.
Determined to keep control, but still trembling slightly, Zoe whispered, "Goodbye my love."
Stepping back, but with his hand still on her shoulder, Wash smiled. "Be happy," he said, and he pushed the button.
Zoe scarcely remembered how she got here. One minute she was with Wash, the next she was running with the others out from the smoke and broken glass, and then she was here, on Serenity. Wash was gone.
She was sitting on a crate in the cargo bay. Mal came and sat next to her, silently.
Staring at nothing in particular, Zoe asked, "Sir, what do you think? Do you think he'll remember this? Us? When he gets back?"
Mal said nothing for a moment, then a small smile came to his face. "Zoe, do you remember when we were here last, and Wash came back on board, and I asked him if he'd give Kaylee a hand in the engine room? Do you remember what he said?"
Zoe's face was blank.
Mal continued, "He said, 'Not a ghost of a chance.' Then he smiled in an odd way and went off to help her. I wondered what I was missing, then forgot about it until now. Yes, I think he remembered. He knew what was going to happen and didn't flinch. He was quite a man, your husband."
"Yes sir, that he was."