“Hey, tough guy, ” said Wash. “You don’t gotta pretend like you just got sent on a free vacation with beautiful women and pineapples and kites, you know. Gives some of us lesser mortals a complex.” The pilot lay on his bunk across from Mal, and the two were talking quietly. Privacy wasnâ€™t really an option with the weather as it was, but an unguarded sort of comradeship and trust had developed among the six during the past week. “I know you’ll shrug off the whole being tortured by vicious creeps thing â€“ as incredibly nauseating as that is. But â€“ you got convicted. I got an idea being stuck here is your worst nightmare.”
Mal nodded. “You ever wake up from a nightmare, realize it’s okay?” How do I explain I’m not even here? The part of me that matters is up there in the sky somewhere, safe. The part of me that was so scared of being trapped here, isn’t.
He felt a smile cross his face, and he looked calmly at Wash. “Not shrugging anything off, just healing from it. And I’ll do their ten years with a grin on my face if it’ll spite the Alliance.”
Washâ€™s face went slack in sheer empathy. â€œTen years?â€ He forgot to keep his voice low, and in an instant every man in the room knew what that meant. Nobody had asked; theyâ€™d just offered comfort and understanding untainted by painful questions.
â€œYes,â€ he said, meeting all five gazes, one by one. â€œThey sentenced me to ten years here. Iâ€™m officially a war criminal.â€ To their credit, each and every one of them recognized how painful those words were.
Mal collected himself in an instant, finding the familiar inner determination that seemed to come so easily now. “I knew I might die in the war, we all did. If it asks another ten years of me now, so be it.” His voice was steady and his words sincere, and the hurt on the faces of his friends eased.
“Are â€“ are you going to be okay?” asked Gray, genuinely concerned.
Mal nodded. “Be fine.” He couldn’t pull off convincing them with false courage; he had to mean it, and did. For all the nightmares snapping at his heels, he felt calmer now than he had since the end of the war. Maybe he’d always grieve loosing the war, deep down. But it didn’t crush him, not any longer. Felt like himself; a very broken and patched together again version of himself with little pieces prone to falling off at odd moments, but the universe seemed like a thing he could understand and come to terms with, even love, again.
There was love, too, reflected on the faces of his companions. “Good,” said Zeke with a smile. “Figures, they guy they convicted of not giving up would be someone as stubborn as you.”
Mal grinned. “I always did like a fight. Not sure they won’t regret having to put up with me for all this time.”
Wash stared at him uneasily. “What did you do for fun on Shadow? Poke bears with sharp pointy sticks?”
“Bulls can be fun,” said Mal. “Get yourself a bull, a cliff, one green horse, and two kids from the Core thinking they want to make friends with the nice cow, and you got yourself the recipe for rousing adventure.”
“How many stitches?” asked Wash.
“How’d you â€“ what â€“ you know me too well,” protested Mal. “Twenty-one. And a dislocated shoulder and two very pissed-off sets of parents.”
“Well â€“ it’s not a proper fun â€“ adventure thing unless it involves at least twenty-five,” said Wash. “Sorry.” Mal threw a pillow at him with a glare.
“How are you men today?” It was asked with a casual glance in their direction, a glance more focused at the clipboard in his hand than at the six prisoners. Mal wondered if he was the only one who felt like answering his question with a little tap to the jaw, but the flash of irritation in Zeke’s eyes told him otherwise. For the only official on their side he’d had seen in near a year, Mal would have hoped for someone who looked a little less like an Alliance drone.
Todd Chilson was the Independent liaison Lee had told him about, and the man was standing square in the middle of their housing unit like he owned the place. The jaded smile he gave them in greeting was an artificial one, that of a man going through the motions. He was a lean man in his fifties, with a receding hairline and a hint of stubble on his face.
“Well, the gorram guards have asked that question with more feeling, but if you actually wanted to know, we’re shiny.” said Mal. “Only been averaging one random beating a week these days, and only one of us ‘as tried to commit suicide lately, so I’d say we’re peachy, sir.” The low menace in his voice as he uttered the word “sir” was entirely intentional. The liaison didn’t flinch.
“Sir, we’re going insane in here,” said Zeke. “Wasn’t so hard to hold it together during the war, but sitting for months after wondering what’s happening and why we’re still here takes a toll.”
The liaison nodded, not bothering to look up from his clipboard at either of them. “I get that. Well, let me check off some names. Please step forward as I call you.”
Mal and Zeke exchanged disbelieving glances. Gray looked at Straaker. “Hey, Lance, it’s your long-lost brother.” Straaker glared back, but there was humor behind his indignant look.
The liaison looked puzzled, but shrugged and started reading from the papers in his hand. “Lieutenant Gray. Lieutenant Hamilton. Lieutenant Lee. Captain Straaker. Lieutenant Washburne.”
One by one, they stepped forward as instructed. The liaison looked up from his papers. “You are all scheduled for release in one week. Congratulations, and the Independent Army thanks you for your service. You will be given your discharge papers upon your release.”
All five men looked at each other in silence. Wash was the first to speak. “Been playing this scene in my head for years. Had no idea it was going to be this sentimental,” he said dryly.
“I might just shed a tear,” agreed Zeke.
“Forget all â€“ guys, we’re free!” said Gray, the reality and excitement finally hitting.
The five men stared at each other in something like disbelief, hanging in suspended animation until the news collectively registered. Matty and Gray launched themselves at each other in an ecstatic hug. Wash and Zeke also hugged, the quieter celebration of two friends recognizing the long-awaited end of an era. Straaker stood to the side, a smile growing slowly on his face.
And in a flash, it ended. â€œMal.â€ Five men looking between Mal and Chilson. â€œWhat about Sergeant Reynolds?â€
The liaison looked even more intently at his clipboard. â€œHe stays.â€
It was Zeke who broke the silence. â€œIâ€™m not leaving without him.â€
Wash stepped forward to his side. â€œMe neither.â€ Gray, Matty, and Straaker joined him.
The liaison shook his head. â€œI appreciate what youâ€™re trying to do, and you’re not the first ones to want to make a stand. Nobody wants to abandon a comrade, and everyone’s throwing fits over it. But it is an order, direct from the Independent army. When you’re discharged, you will leave or be removed. That’s that.” Mal looked down, feeling a sudden sense of loss.
â€œWell, theyâ€™ll have to drag us out,â€ said Wash with a sort of steel in his voice. â€œWeâ€™re not abandoning him.â€
Mal intervened. â€œYes, yâ€™are. Orderâ€™s an order.â€ He looked from one man to another, hoping they understood his sincerity. â€œThank you. But I expect you to leave.â€
This sensation of loss wasn’t a devastating one, just a familiar hollowed-out feeling in his chest born from too many years of war. Years where you looked at a man one minute and he was walking and talking, and the next his eyes saw nothing. Those losses were the only kind he was used to.
They aren’t going to die. Losing people because they were moving on to freedom and happiness, this was a new thing. A wonderful one. The tightness in his chest relaxed. Good men. There was a solid joy in looking at them and knowing they were going to live, going to be free. There were survivors after all.
Wash lowered his head and closed his eyes in what Mal mistook for defeat. â€œNo,â€ he said, his voice low and determined. â€œIâ€™m. Not. Leaving.â€
â€œYou’re getting out of prison,â€ said the liaison, frustrated. “The point isn’t to stay, it’s to get the hell out, dong ma?”
Zeke’s hand curled into a fist, and Wash looked at him in deepening anger. â€œThe only way Iâ€™ll leave this place is unconscious. If you had any sense of â€“ humanity in you, you wouldnâ€™t be ordering us to abandon this man.â€
“What ever happened to never leaving a man behind?” asked Gray. “You’re asking us to leave a man in the hands of the enemy, do you know how messed up that is?” The mood was rapidly swinging from a puzzled joy to sheer rage.
Mal walked forward and sat at the edge of the table. “I’m humbled,” he said, his voice deeply sincere. He considered his words carefully. “What you’re wantin’ to do is all manner of noble, and touching, and I’ll remember if for a long time to come. But what’s going to bring more joy’n I can tell you is to see you free.”
Straaker looked at Mal for a long time with an odd expression on his face. Finally he stepped forward and placed a hand on Mal’s arm, holding it there uncertainly as he started to speak, slowly, carefully. Whatever this was, Straaker was trying with all he had to get it right. “I â€“ know being a leader isn’t my strongest quality, and I know none of us, not even me, will forgive me if I stand here and say we should abandon a fellow soldier. A – friend.”
“Then don’t,” said Zeke, his voice cold and harsh. The liaison stood, clutching his clipboard uneasily.
Mal threw up a hand to silence him, and nodded at Straaker to continue, giving him a reassuring look. Straaker took a deep breath and gripped Mal’s arm more tightly. “I â€“don’t want to. The thing is â€“ this is something we’ve been ordered to do, by our own army. It’s going to be maybe the last order we ever get, and I don’t want to disobey it. The thing about following orders is sometimes you have to just trust the people giving them. Even â€“ even if it might get you killed, or make you leave someone behind.”
There was silence; everyone was watching Mal. There was a thin line in those few seconds between respect of Straaker and pure hatred. “He’s right, you know,” said Mal. “We’ve all suffered in this, and we lost. We don’t have command to look to, we have each other. It’s all that’s left. But there’s a dignity of sorts in sayin’ that we’re still an army, and we’ll obey this order.”
The matter had been decided. Each reacted in their own way, but they accepted it. Straaker looked at Mal, deeply sad and grateful. “I’m sorry,” he said, nodding at him in respect before walking off and sitting on his bunk. Wash couldn’t look at Mal; he walked outside, torn to pieces. The other three stood close to Mal, reluctant to leave his side.
“Have a seat?” Chilson gestured at the chair, venturing a glance at Mal. It was as brief as everything else the man did, but Mal spotted guilt in that uneasy glance. “I’m sorry,” he said with a sigh. “Thanks â€“ for taking it well. It’s hard, to stand there and tell people they’ve got to stay while the others go.”
“Happy to see folk go free,” said Mal. Chilson gave him a reluctantly grateful smile, and Mal studied him.
“Liaison,” said Mal. “What’s that mean, exactly? You seem more like you’re working for the Alliance than anything else, seems to me we might be making a mistake to greet you as a friend.”
Chilson looked away. “I’m loyal to the Browncoats. Until recently, my job has been to make sure prisoners were being treated well.”
“Try lookin’ me in the eye when you say that,” said Mal. The unfriendly edge in his voice prompted the man to obey.
There was anger mixed with the guilt when he met Mal’s eyes. “You try being warm and friendly when your job is to deliver the news the Alliance doesn’t even have the guts to deliver themselves. Why do you think they sent me in here to do this? They want me doing their dirty work so they don’t have a riot on their hands.”
“I don’t know that it takes guts to release innocent men,” said Mal. “Maybe if you’re the cowards holding ‘em-”
“The timing’s deliberate,” said Chilson, a hard edge of hatred in his voice. “Rubbing salt in the wound, you might say. They want everyone marching out of here, leaving the so-called war criminals behind.”
Mal frowned. “Sounds like the Alliance in general. But I have to say, they haven’t gone in for psychological cruelty in here on any sort of a wide scale.”
Chilson sighed. “The cruelty isn’t directed at you,” he said, his voice tired. It was the most sincere thing he’d said, and Mal’s outlook on the man softened. “Alliance has been fighting dirty this whole time. Delaying rescue operations after the cease-fire, holding POWs long after the war, demonizing our men and trying them as war criminals. It’s all an effort to force concessions from our side, using soldiers as bargaining chips.”
“We surrendered. What more do they want?” asked Gray bitterly.
“It’s the Alliance. They want everything,” said Mal. “World domination, your soul, keys to the carâ€¦â€¦”
“Lots of things,” said the liaison. “Agreements never to seek reparations, public statements apologizing for our role in the war and proclaiming our support of unity under the Alliance-”
“You know, they never tried to get me to sign any such thing,” said Mal. “Always wondered about that, figured at first that’s when things would get ugly.”
Chilson shook his head. “Nope. Gotta give the Alliance credit for smarts on that one. They figure why go after the individual soldiers when they can get command to do it for them? They aren’t stupid.”
He sighed, leaning back in the chair and stretching out his legs. “So, they get a few genuinely decent commanders to run these places. Treat you good, give you comfortable housing, plenty of food, call you by your names, and encourage the guards to feel compassion. Make a splash about how well they’re treating everyone, and they have themselves a propaganda victory. On top of that, maybe you rethink your loyalties, or at the very least you come out with a respect of sorts, knowing they never tried to harm or coerce you. Come out thinking the Alliance isn’t so bad after all”
“Never â€“ tried â€“” Mal blinked at the audacity of that statement. He sighed and shut up. What was intended and what actually happened rarely tended to match terribly well.
The liaison looked at him with sympathy. “What they hope all of you never realize is that the reason they’re not beating any statements out of you is they’re just using you to force the same thing out of Independent command. An apology and pledge of support from command carries a hell of a lot more weight then a paper some poor soldier signed under duress.”
A wave of cheering broke out in a nearby yard, and they all looked up with growing smiles. True joy, even the bittersweet kind, was a thing all of them had left behind long ago. With that sound, it was starting to stir again. In a second they moved as one, running for the door, adding their voices to the cheer. Wash had been sitting alone against the wall of the building, and he stood and joined them.
Whooping, screaming, smiling, hugging. A sudden frenzy of everything suppressed for months and years washed, infectious, over the yards. Even those who hadn’t yet gotten notice knew instantly what it meant and joined in as dozens of voices became thousands.
A harsh voice blared over the speakers. “Attention prisoners. We will have silence and order in the yards. Stop immediately and return to your housing units.”
They stopped, looked at each other. Shouting turned to silence, and just as quickly returned as gleeful laughter. Something snapped inside Mal, and he grinned in sheer joy. For this moment, he let go. He’d endured years of seeing the people he fought beside experience fear, pain, and death. Now, for the first time, it was exhilaration and freedom, and he breathed it in like clear, fresh air.
A guard appeared at the gate and beckoned them all forward. The prisoners tensed momentarily, but there was nothing grim in his expression. It was Lang, watching them with a spark of joy in his eyes behind the professional mask. He held up his hand and high-fived each of them in succession, trying not to smile. He didn’t entirely succeed, but he set his face in an instant. “Go inside.”
There was a difference in all of them when they went back inside and took their seats on chairs and bunks; a genuine relaxation that none had felt since the day they had entered the prison. Mal recognized it with enjoyment. He didn’t feel it himself, but he did feel the relief of seeing something go right, of the end of years of unbroken tragedy.
Chilson, too, looked like a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He actually smiled when he sat and looked back to Mal. “So the agreements and concessions, that’s why they’re prosecuting soldiers, not just the officers who kept us in the fight?” asked Mal.
Chilson nodded. “More or less. There are other factors, but essentially they’re using these trials as emotional coercion against command. If they were to capitulate, suddenly the Alliance would lose its interest in prosecuting war criminals.”
Mal sighed. “One of the smarter moves they’ve made.”
“Listen â€“ it’s been going like this for a while now. Citizenship, arms, wages, reparations â€“ it’s the negotiations that have kept everyone in here so long, so your captivity could be used as leverage. We’ve won a lot of ground. Look â€“ we’re fighting hard to secure amnesty for every single soldier, and there are even some on the Alliance side who want to give it. I’ve every hope we’ll get you and the rest free, Sergeant.”
Mal looked at him. “And I have to trust politicians to win that for me?”
“Yes,” said Chilson.
“Did they have every hope we wouldn’t die in that valley waiting for rescue, too?” asked Mal. “Tell me, ah, what concessions did that win us?”
“I â€“ I’m not sure exactly, sir. I’m sure command wouldn’t have made any stand that wasn’t worth it.”
Mal laughed out loud. Snorted, more like. “You clearly didn’t fight in the war.”
“Um â€“ noâ€¦.”
“Command makes their stands based on which way the wind blows and whether they smell magical fairy-dust in the air, near as I can tell,” said Mal.
Chilson looked down. “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Mal didn’t answer, and after a silence Chilson spoke again. “Will you tell me exactly what it was they did to you? Can you, without retaliation?”
“Oddly enough, I was asked to speak to you,” said Mal. “Don’t think retaliation’ll be a concern.”
It wasn’t as cold, now. Bits of snow still clung to the ground here and there, but the deadly chill was gone from the air. Mal stuffed his hands in the pocket of his jacket and wandered in the falling light. Felt good to move, the ease the stiffness in his joints brought on by too many hours lying down. His legs felt almost steady under him, and he breathed deeply.
A pawn. He looked out, so far as he could. The yard was surrounded by chain link and sharpened wire, the staple of imprisonment for centuries. Ten feet outside the wire ran a tall fence, blocking the rest of the facility, and the other yards, from view. It seemed an oddity, a waste of space. It also concealed the feeling of how vast this place was, which wasn’t all bad. One could be alone, see the sky, watch sunsets like the one lighting up the sky right now.
He walked to the gate, looked down the long gravel corridor which led past the other yards in their section to more gates, more fences, more buildings. Their yard, being on the end, had more of a view. It wasn’t one to be inspired by. Sometimes he imagined nothing but a vast field and clear sky on the other side of their walls. But looking down the corridor, it was painfully obvious just how contained they were.
Thousands of people, held in a warehouse for human beings as a tool to aid political maneuvering. Even Lee, he supposed, was a pawn, one of those genuinely decent commanders Chilson spoke of. He imagined Lee knew it, too. The man was far from stupid, simply honorable enough to carry out his duty with respect for the lives entangled in the games of more powerful men.
Wash was standing just outside the door, looking at Mal in question. Mal waved him out, and they walked in silence for a few minutes. There was a deep joy in the pilot’s eyes, but it was clouded by guilt. Finally Mal stopped and hooked his fingers into the fence to steady himself. “When they took me out, to my trial, we went up in a ship. Out in space, orbited about for a while.”
Wash stood by and let him talk. “Most beautiful sensation I can remember. Made all this seem not so important.”
“Nice up there, isn’t it,” said Wash, his voice quiet.
Mal nodded. “This place â€“ isn’t my world any longer. It’s too small.”
Wash smiled, nodding upwards. “Big sky up there.”
They started walking again, silent in the knowledge that it was one of those times both would look back on when they recalled a friendship. The chill returned with a vengeance when the last of the light disappeared, and Mal started shivering. He didn’t stop walking, though.
“Conversation seemed halfway hopeful,” said Wash. “Maybe they’ll just cut you loose after all. You know, releasing the hostages and all that.”
Mal twisted up his face. “Some groups kill hostages, you know.”
“You know what I like about you?” asked Wash. “Always with the optimism. Goes well with your sunny disposition.”
Mal chuckled. “It’s been a good day.” I mean that.
The guilt left Wash’s face, and his eyes lit up with an exuberant grin.