FireflyFirst Chapter Of The Serenity Book Online
Sunday 7 August 2005, by Webmaster
SERENITY VALLEY, HERA
Sergeant Malcolm Reynolds’s life had reduced itself to the critical imperative of running.
He pumped his legs as fast as he could through the uneven ground of Serenity Valley, his boots slamming down onto the rocks and dirt. With a determination born of faith and righteousness, he ignored the aching muscles, the fingers that desperately wanted to relinquish their grip on his weapon, and the bodies of so many of his fellow soldiers as he dashed back to base camp. Not to mention the mortar fire lighting up the night sky all around him.
"Base camp" was probably a more highfalutin name than the pile of sandbags in the dirt deserved, but that was what they had. The tattered remains of the Independent defense was headquartered there.
For five weeks, they had held the valley. Serenity Valley was the key to Hera, and Hera was the key to the war. Whoever controlled this particular ball of rock would be in position to do considerable damage to the other side.
Doing damage was a notion Mal Reynolds could surely get behind.
He stumbled up the incline that led to base camp, throwing his arms down at the last minute to cushion the impact as his body hit the ground. That, he thought, could’ve been ugly. Might’ve split my lip or something.
It was a weak joke, but such were powerful funny when you were watching Alliance aircraft mow down platoon after platoon after platoon.
To some extent, Mal was flattered by the attention. The Alliance calling in air support meant that they took the Browncoats’ defense of Serenity Valley seriously — something they probably commenced to doing after a month had passed without the Alliance taking Serenity in twenty-four hours like they planned.
So they sent in more troops. And more air support.
As Mal watched, an Alliance skiff took down dozens of his people, plowing through bodies like knives.
Stumbling into base camp, he wondered where the hell their own air support was. The Alliance had been too clever by half, and made sure to target officers instead of grunts. Mal wasn’t all sure, but it seemed fair to certain that he was the highest-ranking Brown-coat left in this gorram valley.
And still we’re holding it. He smiled. These Alliance folk were getting a hard lesson in the power of positive thinking — in this case, the people were positive they didn’t need some government completely taking over their lives. The Alliance was welcome to the central planets, but keep your grubby mitts off our outer worlds, thank you so much. Once our air support shows up, then you’ll really see what we can do. Until then, though, that Alliance skiff out there was not going to let up until all the Browncoats were dead.
He went straight for the corporal whose name
he could not remember, but who he called "Grin"
on account of how he never once smiled. Grin was from Sergeant DeLorenzo’s platoon, until Sergeant DeLorenzo — and three-quarters of his platoon — were wiped out by the first Alliance airplane to show up.
At Mal’s questioning glance, Grin said, "Sergeant, Command says they’re holding until they can assess our status."
Mal’s jaw fell open. "Our status is, we need some gorram air support. Now get back online, tell ’em to get in here!" What is it about Command that they must insist on having their heads firmly implanted in their rectums?
Even as Mal spoke, ZoŽ Alleyne leapt in from above. "That skiff is shredding us, sir."
ZoŽ had been with Mal in the 57th from the beginning of the war, and it hadn’t taken long for him to count on her as his right hand. Mal knew he was a decent soldier, all things considered, but ZoŽ was brilliant. There were times when Mal was convinced that, had ZoŽ been on the Alliance’s side, this war would be over, and the Browncoats would be done for. And had there been more like ZoŽ, he suspected that a lot more of his people would be alive. As it was, only he, ZoŽ, Bendis, and McAvoy were left of the original 57th, though he had inherited plenty of others, including the entire company under Lieutenant Baker’s command, owing to Lieutenant Baker lying dead with several dozen bullets in his chest not three meters from where Mal was crouched down right present.
Grin was fixing Mal with his usual serious expression. "They won’t move without a lieutenant’s authorization code, sir."
Firmly implanted in their gorram rectums. Mal ran over to Baker’s corpse, muttered a quick prayer and apology — Ben Baker wasn’t a bad sort for an officer — and ripped the ID patch off the lieutenant’s uniform arm. On the underside was etched the man’s code.
Handing Grin the patch, Mal said, "Here — here’s your code. You’re Lieutenant Baker, congratulations on your promotion, now get me some air support!"
Mal then gathered ZoŽ, McAvoy, Johannsen, Tedesco, and Bendis to his side. Mal had put McAvoy in charge of one of the squads, which was made up entirely of the remnants of fifteen other squads. Since the air support was taking its good sweet time, they needed themselves a Plan B. Luckily, he’d seen the makings of that plan down the hill a ways, since the Alliance had been right neighborly enough to not blow up the GAG when they wiped out the 32nd.
To Johannsen and Tedesco: "Pull back just far enough to wedge ’em in here." To McAvoy: "Get your squad to high ground, start pickin’ ’em off."
McAvoy nodded, but ZoŽ looked pissed. "High ground is death with that skiff in the air," she said.
"That’s our job." He gave her a cheeky grin. "Thanks for volunteering." Then he looked at the youngest member of the squad. "Bendis, give us some cover fire — we’re goin’ duck hunting."
Suddenly the entire base camp rattled and shook as mortar fire landed close enough to send everyone sprawling. Without even thinking, Mal threw his hands over his face to protect his eyes from the dust and dirt and shrapnel.
When he removed his arms, Johannsen lay dead in front of him. Bendis was staring at the corpse, eyes wide, lips quivering, his hands gripping his rifle so hard his knuckles were even whiter than his face.
Mal grabbed his shoulder. "You just focus!" He looked in turn at each of the others. Tedesco didn’t look so hot, either, and McAvoy was biting down on his lower lip so hard he was drawing blood. They’d come too far to start giving up now. "The Alliance said they were just gonna waltz through Serenity Valley, and we choked them with those words. We have done the impossible and that makes us mighty." He smiled, hoping to give them the confidence he felt, because Mal knew that soon this battle would be over and they would be the victors. "Just a little while longer and our angels will be soarin’ overhead raining fire on those arrogant cusses, so you hold."
He looked Bendis right in the eye. "You hold!"
After a moment, he said, "Go!" McAvoy, Bendis, Tedesco, ZoŽ, and the others all moved to ready their weapons.
As she reloaded her weapon, ZoŽ shot Mal a look. Mal had come to know — and appreciate — that as ZoŽ’s I-know-you-want-us-to-feel-better-but-are-you-just-bullshitting-us? expression. "You really think we can bring her down, sir?"
Mal grinned. "You even need to ask?"
His weapon already primed, Mal took a moment to pull the crucifix out from under his shirt. Kissing it, he whispered a quick "Our Father." Mal wasn’t arrogant enough to think of the Independence cause to be the same as the way Christ defied the Romans, but he was also wise enough to see the similarities. The Alliance swallowed planets with technology and rule of law and conformity. Mal had nothing against technology, and rule of law certainly had its place in the ’verse, but conformity was not a concept he could get behind, any more than Christ could.
Prayer completed, Mal got to his feet. "Ready?"
"Always." ZoŽ was, of course, right behind him. God and ZoŽ were the only two things in the ’verse Mal Reynolds had counted on, and neither one of them had let him down yet.
The same could not be said for Bendis, who was not right behind ZoŽ. In fact, he hadn’t moved a muscle since Mal told him to hold.
"Bendis!" ZoŽ bellowed in a voice that could command the stars to change alignment.
But Bendis still didn’t move, even after two more yells from ZoŽ.
McAvoy had already moved off, and his people would be in position in five minutes. They couldn’t afford to wait — or to babysit Bendis. Mal nodded to ZoŽ, who hauled herself and her weapon above the sandbags and started laying down Bendis’s cover fire.
Mal ran out from behind the bags and started his run toward the GAG.
Ground-air guns were a handy weapon to have when faced with air strikes by Alliance skiffs. The Alliance, however, knew that, and so made sure that the soldiers assigned to the only GAG the Browncoats had in Serenity Valley were their primary target. Mal’s goal was to get to it and take that gorram skiff down before it picked off the entire damn company.
When he got to the rock-line — ZoŽ, naturally, right behind him — he peered down to make sure that what he saw half an hour earlier still held true. Sure enough, there was only one Alliance soldier guarding the GAG. Mal wondered if it was overconfidence, or if it was just that their troops were spread too thin. Then Mal decided he didn’t rightly care all that much, long as it remained so.
Pausing to take aim at the soldier — who at least had the good sense to be under some cover — Mal fired.
The Alliance soldier lay dead moments later.
Mal recollected something a shepherd had said to him round a year or so back: The commandment was not "You will not kill," as it was often mistranslated. It was, in fact, "You will not commit murder."
As far as Mal was concerned, though he’d killed many a person since this war commenced, he’d yet to murder a single living soul.
He ran down to the GAG, ZoŽ staying behind to watch his back. Settling into the shoulder harness, he activated the weapon — thanking the good Lord that the Alliance hadn’t actually sabotaged the thing — and swiveled it up and around toward the skiff that had been making their lives a ruttin’ hell for the past hour.
The compglass lit up with targeting information. Mal let the computer do its job, setting the GAG’s sights on the skiff and staying with it once the target was acquired.
Then, when a low beep, barely audible over the shell fire all around him, told him that the skiff was in range, he fired.
Two barrels loaded with two-hundred-caliber ammunition fired at full strength into the skiff at Mal’s command, tearing through that flying deathtrap as easily as the skiff’s own bullets went through Mal’s people.
Stepping out of the GAG, Mal whooped and cheered as the skiff went hurtling down —
— right toward him on the ground.
Turning, Mal ran as fast as he could, pumping his tired, aching legs as hard as he could. ’Cause it would be right embarrassing to go to all that trouble to shoot down the skiff and then get oneself crushed by its flaming, descending hulk. That sort of thing could ruin a man’s day.
"ZoŽ!" he cried as he ran toward her. She whirled around to see a crazed sergeant barreling right for her, a fiery skiff heading toward the ground at a great rate right behind him.
Even as Mal grabbed her, she herself leapt to the ground, hoping to avoid the wreck.
Mal felt the heat of the explosion on his back, and for a moment, he feared his coat would catch fire.
Then the explosion started to die down. Mal rolled over on his back and started laughing.
ZoŽ gave him her you’re-ruttin’-insane-sir look.
They ran back to base camp. Mal couldn’t stop laughing. We are going to take this valley, we are going to take this rock, and we are going to win this thing!
As they ran back behind the sandbags, Mal saw Bendis, who had yet to budge from his spot. ZoŽ looked like she was going to spit at him. "Nice cover fire!"
Mal, however, couldn’t bring himself to be angry. "Did you see that?" He ran over to the radio. "Grin, what’s our status on — ?"
Then he saw that Grin was lying down on the job. Not really his fault, mind, seeing as he had a bullet hole where his left temple used to be, Baker’s patch still clutched in his hand.
Looking away, Mal called for ZoŽ and pointed at the radio. She nodded and ran over to Grin’s corpse, taking the headpiece out of his right ear.
Mal instead went over to Bendis, who looked like he had soiled himself a dozen times over. "Hey, listen to me. Bendis." Gritting his teeth, he yelled, "Look at me!" Bendis finally looked up at him. Mal saw considerable fear in the boy’s eyes. "Listen — we’re holding this valley no matter what."
For the first time in what seemed like days, Bendis spoke, in a dull monotone. "We’re gonna die."
"We’re not gonna die. We can’t die, Bendis, and you know why? Because we are so very pretty." He grinned. "We are just too pretty for God to let us die. Huh?" He grabbed Bendis’s chin. "Look at that chiseled jaw. Huh? C’mon."
The beginnings of the possibility of a smile started to consider appearing on Bendis’s face. But before Mal could commence to trying to cheer the boy up further, the sound he’d been waiting all night for finally made itself heard through the weapons fire.
He couldn’t tell if it was one big ship or a whole passel of little ones, and he didn’t rightly care. Looking up and grinning even wider, he said to Bendis, "Well, if you won’t listen to me, listen to that." He looked at Bendis. "Those are our angels, come to send the Alliance to the hot place." Turning back toward the radio, he said, "ZoŽ, tell the 82nd — "
"They’re not coming."
At first Mal assumed he heard wrong. Of course the 82nd’s coming, I can hear them, they’re —
Then he heard it. The tone in ZoŽ’s voice. He recognized it on account of ZoŽ not normally having much by way of a tone. On anyone else, it would’ve just sounded like a monotone, but there were nuances to ZoŽ’s speaking patterns that one learned to suss out if one got to spending enough time with her.
And what Mal heard now was despair as deep as what he saw in Bendis’s eyes.
"Command says it’s too hot," ZoŽ said. "They’re pulling out. We’re to lay down arms."
Lay down arms?
No. Mal refused to believe it. They were winning, gorramit, they were beating back the Alliance, and God was on their side, and they were winning!
Besides, he heard the angels. "But what’s — ?"
Then he realized.
Even though he knew he couldn’t bear to see it, he forced himself to stand up and look over the sandbags. Bendis stood up next to him.
It wasn’t the 82nd he heard, though he had, in fact, heard angels. They were the seven angels who heralded the end of the world.
"The first angel sounded his trumpet, and there came hail and fire mixed with blood, and it was hurled down upon the earth. A third of the earth was burned up, a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up."
For all the weeks they’d been holding Serenity Valley, the sounds of battle had become so much white noise to Mal. Now, though, it was like all his senses were more acute than ever.
He smelled the acrid ozone of the bullets flying through the air, including the one that struck Bendis in the chest, killing him instantly as he stood next to Mal.
He felt the ground shake as the Alliance vessels’ thrusters slammed against the ground to permit them a soft landing.
He tasted the bitter adrenaline combined with bile at the realization of what was happening.
He heard ZoŽ say that the Independents were asking the Alliance for a parley to discuss terms of surrender.
And he saw hail and fire being hurled down upon the earth, and mixing with the blood of the people Mal Reynolds had called comrades.
ZoŽ had thought she had seen the worst possible ways to die.
She believed that the Alliance didn’t have the right to control all the known worlds. The Alliance, naturally, had something to say about that, so there was a war. ZoŽ had fought, going where they told her to, shooting what they told her to shoot. That was what she did. ZoŽ had no illusions — she was a follower. She was particular about who she chose to follow, mind, but she knew her limitations. Unlike, say, Malcolm Reynolds, she had no leadership skills.
But she had a fair portion of fighting skills, and she was sure to put them all to good use against the Alliance.
She thought she had seen all the worst ways to die during the war.
That was before the fighting stopped.
It had been two weeks. A fortnight since Command said Serenity Valley was "too hot" after they’d held it for so long. Fourteen days since they were told to lay down arms.
Two weeks since they’d been left there to wait until the armistice was signed.
Two weeks to watch people die.
There were no proper medical facilities on this part of Hera, and they had no way to get to the places that did. No ships flew overhead while they waited, no chatter came over the radio.
So people died. They died of wounds that got infected. They died of colds that they might have shaken off in a day if they weren’t exposed and exhausted and bleeding. They died when they fought over what little food remained. They died when they decided eating their pistols was a better end than waiting in Serenity Valley for hope that would not show itself.
For ZoŽ’s part, she dealt with it by shutting off her feelings. It was the only way to surround yourself with suffering — and also the only way to inflict it on other people. It didn’t get to her because she refused to let it.
Throughout it all, Sergeant Mal Reynolds kept the troops going as best he could. Anyone else in charge, ZoŽ was sure they’d all be dead. But he managed to keep everyone going, with jokes, with inspiration, with anything he could throw at them.
Except, she noticed after the third day, for hope. The hope that he had instilled in the troops from day one was gone. Had ZoŽ not been so concerned with whether or not she’d starve to death, she might have mentioned it. As it was, she was content to let him be.
On the fifteenth day, Kiri said, "I can hear something. Does anybody hear that?"
ZoŽ refrained from answering that the only things she could hear were, alternately, her stomach grumbling or Tedesco’s labored breathing as he tried to gasp air with a chest that was riddled with bullet holes.
Sergeant Reynolds called out, "Corporal! ZoŽ! Signal flares!"
Struggling to rise, ZoŽ asked, "Whose colors?" As she forced her limbs to crawl through the fatigue, the injury, the agony, she noticed that Tedesco wasn’t breathing at all. That in fact he’d been dead for two days since being shot in the face. So why did I think I was hearing his breathing?
Kiri said, "It’s a rescue ship, sir! They came!
They came...." Kiri sounded like she couldn’t believe it.
ZoŽ couldn’t believe that no one answered her question. "Whose colors are they flying?" She also couldn’t get up. Her legs, on which she hadn’t called often these past two days, had taken to that state of affairs and simply refused to function.
And then, there was the sergeant, offering her a helping hand. There were few things in the ’verse ZoŽ could count on. Malcolm Reynolds was one of them.
"It don’t matter none," he said in a quiet voice. "One side or the other, it makes no difference."
ZoŽ couldn’t believe her ears. If it didn’t make a difference, what had they been fighting for?
Sergeant Reynolds turned to Kiri and Bourke, who was standing next to him. "Both of you, pass the word. See who’s still with us." Then he bellowed, "Look alive, people! We got medships en route! We need to prepare for extraction!"
It took all ZoŽ’s willpower to keep from bursting out laughing. "Extraction," indeed. Well, actually, it took no willpower, as she could barely stand up, but still, the notion was crazy. They weren’t being "extracted." You were extracted when you were being removed from an op that was over. This — this was just vultures picking over the bones to see if there was any good meat left.
She rooted through a supply bag for the flare, then looked up at the sky. The ships were starting to come into view now, but they were still pretty much just specks against the clouds. Then she handed the sergeant the flare and asked the question she was afraid to ask, yet had to: "Are those really medships? Are we really getting out?"
He took the flare and said, "We are."
For the first time in two weeks, ZoŽ allowed herself to feel something: relief. "Thank God." She let out a long breath, and even thought about the possibility of smiling a little.
Sergeant Reynolds looked at her with as disgusted an expression as she’d ever seen on his face. "God?" He lit the flare. "Whose colors he flyin’?"
ZoŽ shot him a look. He really has lost it.
Then she remembered the old saying about how there were no atheists in foxholes. By the same token, there weren’t very many worshippers in charnel houses, and that’s what Serenity Valley was. The dead outnumbered the living by at least ten to one. ZoŽ had gotten so used to the odor of death that she suspected that the inside of the medship — and it was a medship, she could see that now as it came closer — would smell peculiar.
Either way, the war was finally over. And they lost.