by Paradoqz

The war started at exactly 4:30 am Greenwich time (Londinium), on the gray and foggy morning of Thursday 21st, 2506 AD outside of Prima, the largest settlement of Zannah's World.

It would be less than two months after that the Prime Minister would face the Assembly and solemnly address the gathered dignitaries. The time has finally come, he informed them gravely, to bring the order, prosperity and freedom, already enjoyed by the worlds of the Alliance for Liberty, to the lawless wilderness of the outer reaches of the human-inhabited space, commonly known as the Rim. It was not simply their duty. It was their destiny.

Less than thirty minutes after the speech was aired, an anonymous Op-Ed piece was released throughout the Alliance Common Matrix, popularizing the reasons for the looming 'police action,' and calling on the citizens of the Alliance to cease ignoring the plight of their brethren and arguing that the pacification of the 'marches' would not be a lengthy or costly war.

The article was later attributed the premiere sociologist of the time, Ludwig Tenga, who went to his grave still refusing to comment on the matter -- thus, quite incidentally, giving birth to an entire new branch of scholarship on the Wars of the Unification.

The anonymous 'Letter to the Future' was the first of what would prove to be an unending torrent of the attempts by the contemporaries, and the subsequent generations, to define and pinpoint the reasons for the war and the exact moment when every other alternative was forfeited.

Many explanations were offered, adopted and discarded.

Some argued that the only faction attracted by the military solution to the Rim problem were the merchant cartels whose profits continued to suffer through the recent years from the depredations of the ever-growing number of corsair federations along the Border.

Others pointed to the fact that the Alliance had become dangerously dependent on its outlying daughter worlds for raw materials. More disturbingly yet, the Fringe Worlds began, with increasing frequency, to show a distressing tendency to deny the Alliance a privileged trade status, protest certain tariffs and policies which they deemed protectionist of Allied industries and demand political concessions for their wares.

The demagogues of the Vanguard Party stormed the poli-talk shows accusing the Vorontzev administration of launching the war in order to distract the electorate from the recent financial scandals involving members of the PM's Cabinet and family.

The historians posited that the origins of the war could be traced as far back as the catastrophe of the Chinese Implosion and the subsequent Pacification Wars.

The economists argued that the seeds of the conflict were to be found in the success of the legendary entrepreneur -- Luis Escobeda, who was the first to make the space travel into a viable and incredibly lucrative business, without the helping and authoritative hand of the state.

The poli-sci pundits pointed out that the first waves of the outbound colonists were the refuse of the Alliance, the unwanted and the discontent, the fanatics and the eccentrics, the dreamers and the madmen, the criminals and the poets, the nationalist prophets and new conquistadors. It was hardly a surprise that the bandit-ridden and stubbornly independent Confederation of the Rim Worlds was the political end product of that motley crowd of fierce individualists.

For the men and women who had fought and died in the Unification Wars, on both sides, the reasons and distant origins of the conflict slowly receded from being the frequent and heated subject to a remote, dimly relevant wondering, obscured by the demanding immediacies of fighting and dying.

And when all was said and done for them, as for the billions of others, the beginning of the war would forever be synonymous with two names -- Prima and Dan Matsushima.

Matsushima's Ronin were an organization that was a well-recognized, justly feared and widely respected all along the Rim worlds, long before they were made infamous by the events that took place on the dusty plains of Zannah's World.

The Ronin were counted as being among the elite upper tier of a multitude of the paramilitary units. Matshushima's Ronin along with Frederick's Jaegers, Drake's Raiders, the Shadow Rangers and the Shechem Sayarets were the créme of the crop, the best among a phenomenon that could trace its lineage to the haphazard militias that sprung up not long after the early colonists realized that the Alliance was either unable or unwilling to extend its protection to the planets outside of the sphere of the Signatory Worlds.

Unsurprisingly the Alliance looked unfavorably on the existence of the network of freelance military units completely outside of their control. Thus it was not long before the Bolen Laws outlawed such organizations.

Francois Bolen based this legislature on the Supreme Court's decision that refused to differentiate between the Free Companies and the bandits or corsairs plaguing the Rim. Fully aware of the fact that the Alliance lacked the means, and arguably the will, to enforce their new law, the targets of the Bolen Code remained fairly phlegmatic about being equated with the very threats that induced their formation in the first place. A tacit pact of mutual indifference continued for a long time, neither side paying much attention to the Code. Not infrequently Alliance found it expedient to engage one of the Rim condotierri rather than commit their own, already thinly stretched, troops.

And so the shock of the Prima Incident was all the sharper. The Ronin were hired by Zannah for the twofold purpose.

Firstly Zannahites hoped that their presence would have the effect of forestalling an impending invasion from the neighboring and much more prosperous Mara.

Secondly, the Ronin were expected to put a stop to the destructive raids by a new band of outlaws that announced its arrival into the sector by wiping out several of Zannah's outlying settlements. The raids had no apparent pattern but almost every planet in the Gautama sector had suffered from the attacks, whose savagery overshadowed even the ravages of the infamous Kirov Gang.

The results were mixed. Instead of discouraging Mara, the contract served as a goad. However the national army of that nascent Rim empire proved inadequate against the Ronin and the Zannah irregulars, tacitly supported by Gautama.

After a lightening but exhausting 3-month campaign a peace treaty was signed, releasing the Ronin for the easier task of tracking down the bandits.

It took the mercenaries another month to bring the outlaws, who were now broadly referred to as the Reavers, to battle outside of Prima's walls. The Ronin went into the fight confidently expecting the usual outcome, sure that their undisciplined and bedraggled opposition would break within minutes.

The casualties were heaviest in the outfit's bloody history and no outlaw was taken alive.

Next day the surprised inhabitants of Prima were woken up by the warning barrage of the 87th Marine Regiment. Exhausted and even more surprised, the Ronin were woken by the same barrage only to discover that their camp was ringed by the elite troops of the Alliance.

The question of what the 87th Killing Saints were doing that far out on the Rim was to be among the hottest discussed mysteries of the century. For the Ronin it was, however, overshadowed by the more immediate concern of being threatened with total annihilation unless they surrendered all arms in a quick and orderly fashion.

Faced with firepower of the regiment itself and a small frigate in orbit, the choices were limited.

The majority of the Ronin were left on Zannah in a makeshift prison camp, incidentally driving that frontier world, already exhausted by the expense of contracting the Ronin and then supporting continuous military operation for four months, to the brink of complete economic collapse.

The officer cadre was transported to Persephone to stand trial. Nobody doubted that Matsushima would be speedily convicted under the Bolen Code, creating a significant precedent. The Allied planets, the worlds of the Inner Belt and most of the Rim planets agreed that this was the start of the new epoch. The Alliance has finally shown its full reach and decided to civilize the Frontier.

It appeared that the era of the Free Companies had come to the end.

The Free Companies disagreed.

Less than a month after Matshushima's incarceration, the Delacroix Sabers, Frederick's Jaegers and Henderson's Hussars descended on Persephone, neutralizing its Allied garrison with embarrassing ease.

Within a week they were joined by the Mason's Marauders, Drake's Raiders, who also brought the bulk of the Ronin from Zannah, and Rick's Rifles.

It was upon hearing these news that Prime Minister faced the Assembly, calling the 'illegal occupation of Persephone' a clear challenge by the 'bandits and mercenaries.'

The thunderous ovation of the Assembly ignored the fact that the so called Congress of Captains was quickly joined not only by the planetary Governor of Persephone but the representatives of Callisto federation, Samosata, New Kashmir, Lagash, Angband, Shechem, Gautama and scores of other worlds.

The Congress of Captains became, in fact, the first Congress of the League of the Independent Worlds -- entity that materialized seemingly overnight, amalgamating the already unwieldy structures of the Rim Confederation and the Consortium of the Worlds of Inner Belt.

The lesson of Prima was clear to all of them and with surprising anonymity, the planets whose feuds were measured in generations stood united against the ambition of their mother world.

It was a war that neither side was ready for.

The Alliance wasn't ready. Wealthy and safe for centuries, committed to its social support programs and contemptuous of 'useless relics of the barbaric past' the Signatory Worlds had long since decided that their military had but one purpose and that is to act as a bottomless coffer, a convenient slush fund that would cover the most ambitious of social reconstruction projects without raising the taxes.

It was rumored that upon learning that the war was unavoidable the High Strategos exclaimed bitterly. "All the fat is cut. I guess it's time to break our bones."

His words proved prophetic when, in the embarrassing disclosure, that saw several very high placed individuals indicted and convicted, the Allied Worlds learned that on the eve of war only 15% of their navy was fully operational and even that had to be downgraded to Condition Blue - signifying bare adequacy.

Their Ground Forces and the Marines fared better but not by much. The century-long budget cuts and 'intelligent management' resulted in the absurd situation of the Allied forces frequently facing a better equipped forces of the allegedly dirt poor outer worlds and their 'mercenary henchmen.' Which had a corresponding effect on their morale.

Within the first year the illusions of quick and decisive 'pacification' exercise gave way to crude reality as the Alliance not only lost most of its presence among the planets of the Inner Belt but found itself fighting on the soil of the established and venerated members of the Liberty Pact.

In many ways it was in the first year of the Unification War that the Alliance lost its innocence. Before the war's end it would see the Socialist-Progressives lose their traditional and monolithic grasp on the Grand Assembly and the Senate, the military establishment would grow to consume 40% of the budget, and the democratic structures of the Alliance for Liberty would groan under the weight of the Emergency Laws.

The Consortium of the Inner Belt Worlds wasn't ready.

After generations of the painstaking labor they had finally begun to see the fruits of their sacrifices, moving farther and farther away from the hand-to-mouth existence characteristic of the Rim worlds, always on the edge of the economic or political collapse. Their populations, while still far below the average Alliance world, were blooming, thus in turn boosting their industrial base. Perfectly positioned along the trade routes linking the Alliance and the Rim, the worlds of the Belt took full advantage of the fact.

The only blight on this otherwise bright picture was the encroachments by the Alliance, the attempts by the Home World to reassert antique claims that would curb the Belt's autonomy. Having achieved their present success without any help from the Alliance, most Belt planets were loath to surrender their independence now when the burden of the State's embrace would far outweigh the benefits.

Still, until the Prima Incident, few worlds were willing to risk an open confrontation and, gritting their teeth, many accepted Alliance garrisons -- nominally there to protect them. But below the surface the anger simmered and long before the Congress of Captains, the Belt was seething with political clubs and associations.

Moreover it even could be argued that the Belt had certain advantages over the Alliance in terms of their military experience. Many of the Belt Worlds grew prosperous enough to support national armies and even some space navies, and neither the Belt nor the Rim were strangers to savage, short 'bush wars.' Meanwhile the vast majority of Allied Armed Forces saw little action apart from riots and occasional counter-insurgency operation.

Unfortunately these advantages were offset by many weaknesses.

Even in the midst of their current economic boom, the Belt worlds could not hope to match the industrial capacity of the Alliance. And their economies, while used to the brief and localized conflicts, would be immensely vulnerable to the demands of a protracted conflict and interruption of the commerce that was their lifeline. Moreover, the Belt planets had precious little experience with true cooperation. In fact many of the armies were far more used to fighting each other rather than fighting together. The amalgamation of these forces and their political superstructures would prove to be a daunting task.

The Rim Confederation was not ready.

Thinly populated and struggling against cyclical plague outbreaks, irrepressible piracy, shortages of everything necessary to maintain their precarious hold on civilization and fighting the ever-present and often fatal quirks of their terraformed homes, it was a rare world along the Rim that could afford the luxury of war.

Unlike their wealthier brethren of the longer settled Belt Worlds, the Rim seemed to have nothing to lose and everything to gain from acquiescing to the ambitions of the Alliance.

And yet the optimistic predictions of the Prime Minister about the Allied forces being greeted with open arms, soon became a bitter joke among the embattled federal soldiers.

The why of it was yet another debate that lived longer among the talk show commentators, rather than the prisoners of the trenches.

For the people of the Rim it was never even a question.

Many tried to point to that as yet another evidence of Rim's backward nature. Surely, the argument went, anyone who could believe that these poverty stricken bumpkins had the wherewithal to contend with the Alliance and fight the modern war... surely that proved that they were ignorant, and worse, arrogantly proud of their barbarism.

The journalists and politicians scoffed at the tired and over-romanticized platitude that 'They're a different breed out on the Fringe.'

They smiled condescendingly and pointed out that the GDP of the Entire Confederation was less than that of Terra alone.

The fact that the Rim didn't have enough sense to realize that they had no chance, would only serve to shorten the war as the sharp cold shock of the realities of war was administered to their parochial arrogance.

As it happened, that analysis was wrong on both counts.


"I swear to God... Jesus, our Savior, The First Soldier and Mary the Holy Mother who looks after us in the darkest of our times... I swear to you, by all the saints, kid." The squat, thickly built ranch hand, usually referred to as Black Tom Stirling, shook his head in quiet resignation. "If Sergei doesn't lay the fuck offa me, I'm gonna lose it, one of these days."

Tom scratched his head and squinted at the midday sun, concluding philosophically. "It's gonna be ugly."

"Tommy, man." Malcolm Reynolds Jr, patted his shorter friend on the shoulder. "I'm sorry to be the one to tell you but it got ugly when you left your momma's womb."

"Smart arse." Tom remarked sadly and with a lazy swipe sent his nominal boss flying off the fence into the dust.

"Man... all you Christ the Warrior freaks are so violent." Mal squatted lazily in the flimsy shade. "I don't know whether you should be allowed back into polite society once your hitch is over. You might snap or somethin'... mow down a bunch of townies."

"Don't even be joking about that," Stirling shuddered in mock horror. "I've had me enough of the quiet farm living, wallowing in the serenity of manure and bone breaking labor. It's downright..." Black Tom frowned, "What's that word preacher said last sermon?"

"Idyllic?" Mal hazarded.

Stirling snapped his fingers. "That's the one. Downright idyllic. In that whole hellish and early death kind of way." He scowled at the younger man. "Slave driver."

"Oh, relax. Your Indenture is up next month." Mal glanced up quickly, suddenly serious. "You're gonna take Ma up on her offer, right? I mean... you were kidding before? It wasn't this bad here, really?"

Tom avoided Mal's stare, finally shrugging. "Listen, kid, it's like I done told you. I owe you, Reynolds. If it wasn't for your Ma, I'd be rotting in the Lagash mines now. And this Shadow indenture gig, is not bad considering.... But it just ain't for me. I left a Bumfuck, Backwater just like this. Nah, kid." Tom spat, somewhat embarrassedly. "I'll probably sign up with Drake's outfit. One of the guys saw a recruiter in town."

Worrying a blade of grass through his fingers, Malcolm shook head. "I don't get you, Tom. First the Rebellion, which you guys lost. And I can understand that, I guess. You had to stand up for your own. But signing up with the mercs? Fighting for no cause but whichever pays you? Dying for it maybe? Why? No honor in that."

Tom chuckled. "You've been hanging around that Sokolnik kid again, eh? And he's still playing rebel with that Progressives Committees nonsense. Don't let 'im mess with your brain, Mal."

Reynolds scratched his nose, partially hiding a stubborn expression. "Alliance posted a garrison on another Belt World last month. One of these days we're gonna be next. We gotta be ready."

"Ready for what exactly?" Tom asked interestedly.

"To fight!"

"Fight, huh?" Tom scratched his head again, looking over the farm meditatively. "You and Sokolnik gonna join the Rangers?"


"Gonna be mercs, then? Tsk-tsk, betraying one's principles. So disappointing."

"That's different!" Mal protested. "Dad told me before he... Rangers are different! They are... are..."

"Yours." Tom finished for him. "Gotcha."

"No! I mean yes, but... they are not like the others. They're more like Shadow's army."

"Sayarets are technically a part of Shechem military. Same for Volkov's Wolves and Lincoln's Bad Boys."

"They all hire out all the time! Rangers only go after the bandits." Mal pointed out, getting a little angry. "You know this."

"Well, if I 'member rightly, it wasn't three years ago that times got real tough around here and nobody minded all that much when your pride and joy moseyed on over to Kalkin and helped them boys out. For a fee."

"So?!" Mal scowled. "That only happens one on a blue moon. It was a real bad year. Three bad harvests on top of each other and the FedLoan got called in. I remember. We had to let a bunch of people go. Sayarets merc all the time and ain't too choosy. You can't really say it's the same."

"wWll no, of course not." Stirling conceded phlegmatically. "You Shadow folk got it going here. Especially since they hit that motherload up north. You got your ranches out in the country, got your mines, cities, last of your loans paid off. And, what are you up to now? Twenty million people??"

"Almost." Malcolm confirmed suspiciously. "What of it?"

"Nothin'." Tom drawled lazily. "That's a whole damn of a lot better that most of the Fringe, is all. Pretty soon you gonna be applying for the Consortium Membership, I shouldn't wonder."

"Hey, it's not like it fell in our laps! We had to work our asses off for it." Malcolm bit out belligerently.

"Ain't saying otherwise, kid." Tom grinned. "But Shadow ain't exactly Shechem is it? Good land, good climate and a damn good luck with those mines. They, on other hand, ain't got squat to export but their spear-chuckers." He shrugged. "And they turn out good product too. No shocker."

Mal was silent. Everyone knew the story of how Shechem was settled by the survivors of New Jerusalem. Shechem's dedication to its army and its distrust of the Alliance were also a part of the old story. The Alliance standing idly by while New Medina nuked the prosperous colony world into a radioactive wasteland was not unique among the stories of such sort, but it was surely among the most infamous.

The Rim had a long memory, Malcolm thought. You could just ask the Mew Medinians

If you could find any.

Still, Maclom thought, pulling at the sickly grass under his leg. Still...


"What in the tarnation are you two good-for-nothings doing?!"

"Oh shit," Tom hissed, sliding off the fence and reflexively falling into parade-attention stance.

Mal sprung to his feet, doing his best to imitate his friend.

Ma Reynolds did not look impressed.

"I asked you a question. " She said in a dangerously calm voice.

"Nothing, ma'am! We ain't done nothing! Honest!"

Behind Tom, Mal winced, already seeing a huge tactical miscalculation inherent in that particular answer.

His mother didn't disappoint. Steely gray eyes narrowed and her voice still deathly calm she smiled and Mal could almost sense Tom's blood running cold.

"I can see that you 'ain't done nothing,' Mr. Stirling. My question is why. Why is it that it's a quarter after twelve and you are sitting on your posterior instead of cleaning the stables, for instance?"

Mrs. Reynolds in her time was The Belle of the Western Reaches. Everyone agreed that she married beneath herself, even though it was understandable. That Reynolds boy cut a dashing figure with all them medals and ribbons, a hero fresh from the Tanega Campaign. Still. Nothing but a farm boy at heart. The blood would always out, the matrons of the Dusk City would whisper. It was just how it was.

Everybody was sad of course about the newlyweds' bad luck. Terrible thing to happen, husband dying like that. Sure as taxes, the young Mrs. Reynolds would move back with her folks. A hard thing, a widow's life. What with a child on the way and a homestead barely started being cleared. Sad, sad thing. Ah well.

Twenty years later Mrs. Reynolds was generally referred to as 'that tough old biddy' and her ranch boasted upwards of 40 hands, while routinely making the Ballanger's List of premiere properties of the Western Reaches.

The upshot of the story being, you didn't mess with Mrs. Reynolds.

So Tom bobbed his head, muttered a quick and sincere, "yes, ma'am" and gave every appearance of about to take off at a run when he was stopped cold by Mal's anxious voice.

"Ma? You ok?"

Unlike his pal, Mal could afford to skimp on frantic nodding and was instead watching his mother during her brief tirade, noticing with concern the tiredness, the well hidden worry, the new lines around her eyes.

"Mom?" he repeated again, echoed by Tom's suddenly worried basso.

"Ma'am? Everything all right? If that Taxman was by to bother you again, you just say the word and..."

Something flickered in the gray eyes and the merciless and unquestioned ruler of the Reynolds Ranch suddenly seemed to shrink slightly and looked older than her years.

"There's been an incident. On Zannah..."

Mal stood in silence, listening as the story spilled out, the idle arguments and slogans boasted in the rooms of the Committee Hall suddenly real and tangible. Fringe wouldn't stand for this. And what that meant he could see as clearly as the suddenly grim Tom.

It didn't matter that his uneasy contempt about Free Companies was shared by a sizeable minority.

It didn't matter that Zannah's World was barely a blip on Shadow's radar, a remote world with hardly any commercial or diplomatic ties.

It didn't even matter that with increasing frequency the voice in the back of his head tended to agree with Tom, that if it ever came to a fight the Rim and the Belt simply didn't have the means to outlast the sleeping but all too real military-industrial might of the Alliance.

None of it mattered, because the Fringe wouldn't stand for this. Wouldn't forget. Wouldn't forgive. Couldn't because... because...


His father smiled at Ma, the strong capable, familiar hands checking over his rifle with practiced skill.

"Why, Bobby? You don't have to go, just wait until the militia and the Rangers get here! You don't have to go it alone!"

Outside the voices of the hastily gathered posse and the soft nickering of the horses blended together into an unintelligible, blanketing wall of sound. Everyone was there, it seemed, even Dickie James, and he was only fifteen.

"Just wait, Bobby! Please!" Mom was pleading now, so different from her usual commanding tone. "The Chiangs will be all right! They probably made for the town, as soon as the alarm sounded."

Robert Reynolds, gently but firmly, disengaged his wife's hands from his lapels. "Mandy... I have to go now."


And Dad smiled and smoothed her hair, a little wistfully. "Because... sometimes, when your name is called, a man has to stand up and be counted, if he's a man."


"I have to go to town," Mal muttered, more to himself than anyone else. "The Committee and the Council will start signing people up, they could use some help setting up. I'll take Grasshopper, he's rested!"

Amanda Reynolds looked at her son silently for a long, heavy second before nodding, her hand falling listlessly from an aborted instinctual move to reach for Mal.

Tom stood by her, watching as the younger Reynolds disappeared around the corner.



The term for what was about to take place was coined almost six centuries ago and ever since the techniques of terraforming were perfected it was a frequent topic of discussion in the hallowed halls of Old Sandhurst, an orbital base overlooking the husk of the Earth That Was. Writers and military men devoted endless hours attempting to describe, understand or define what the dreaded conflict would be like.

By the time that the 1st Interstellar War had finally come, the conventional wisdom had it that the concept was outdated, an artificial bogeyman incompatible with modern political realities and best relegated back to the fevered minds of the bored literati. No alien intelligence materialized to bar Humanity's triumphant ascent toward the stars and among the scattered and fractious colonies there was no power capable of challenging the Alliance.

Of course no one foresaw the drastic erosion of federal naval capabilities. And no one, not even the desperate planners of the attack on the New Venice and Kalima Arsenals, could have foreseen the overwhelming surprise and the resulting carnage.

A faction led by the Young Turks of the Alliance military, headed by General Tsung, argued that even after Kalima Disaster, the Alliance still possessed overwhelming naval superiority. Daring, was the order of the day, Tsung argued. Strike back, before the Independents could consolidate and utilize the industrial capability of the Consortium. Their motley fleets of outdated ships and mercenary gunboats would not be able to withstand a determined attack by the Navy.

It was in vain.

The shock of Kalima, swiftly followed by the news of the reverses facing the garrison troops on the Belt Worlds, generated an unprecedented panic. Bowing to the pressure of their constituency that envisioned the savage Fringers sacking Londinium any day, it was deemed that the appropriate course of action would be to reposition the navy in a static defense of the core territories of the Liberty Pact.

To the bemused shock of many planners the war became a clash of ground armies, punctuated by the occasional battles between the supporting fleets composed by the light ships and gunboats.

It was a war of skirmishes and maneuver, savage and unforgiving.

A Fringe kind of war.


Mal leaned back and rubbed his eyes. Hearing the door behind him open he groaned, a pained and trapped sound. "No more paperwork. I can't take it anymore. I'm gonna shoot something and I ain't joking."

"Ahhh." Tom's familiar drawl ineffectively concealed the barely suppressed laughter lurking just beneath the words. "Officer life."

Mal glanced at him briefly, scowling. In many ways it was a huge relief to have Tom, Sergei and the rest with him. And he still remembered how it felt when almost every rancher volunteered to follow the 'young master Malcolm.' The pride and gratitude grew when, like many of the Volunteer units, nearly eighty townsmen and ranchers of the Western Reaches demanded the customary privilege of choosing their own officers.

And so here he was, a captain at 19, leading the Reynolds's Irregulars into their first battle. More of a mop-up really, he conceded. The Command decided that rooting out the last of the Persephone holdouts would be perfect for giving the new batch of Volunteers battle experience, while the more seasoned troops could be freed up for other business.

To the rather unanimous shock of everyone concerned, Mal appeared to have inherited a good portion of his mother's administrative talent, and the Irregulars were among the best supplied units among the Independent contingent stationed of Persephone. The fact that he somehow managed to tame the unbridled chaos of the Independents' logistics, even mitigated the older members of Malcolm's units who weren't ecstatic at having a 'that Reynolds kid' calling the shots. Most of them voted for Sergei, in the first place. And for some time there was a persistent rumor that they were planning to re-sign up with some other Shadow outfit that had a more experienced commander. Thankfully Sergei and Tom squashed that particular tendency with commendable firmness.

Johnny Chiang was still nursing a bruise.

All in all, the dirty vicious politics of his own unit and the Supply Department were beginning to severely test Mal's patience. Just because he wasn't half bad at dealing with the flood of paperwork, he thought mutinously, didn't mean he had to like it.

On the bright side now there was a convenient outlet for his frustration. Malcolm fixed his best glare on Tom and raised his eyebrow menacingly. "What are you doin' here?"

Stirling didn't appear to be much fazed by the glower of his commanding officer as he threw an envelope on the table and grabbed for the bottle of brandy. "Came for you. Sir." The strong white teeth bit into the cork and the rest of the sentence was less intelligible.

"What're you muttering about?" Mal asked impatiently, already tearing the missive open.

"I said..." Tom clarified as the cork came flying. "It's from Command. I think we're about to..."

"Yeah." Mal cut him off, his face suddenly bleak. "We got the go signal."

Stirling paused, separating himself from the bottle and glancing at Mal. "What? I thought you'd be happy..."

Instead of answering, Mal simply handed him the message and rose. Clasping his hands behind his back he approached a window and paused there, chewing on his lower lip.

"Oh." Tom said. "Right."

"You think we're ready for something like that?" Mal asked, his face still studiously turned away.

Tom opened his mouth and then stopped, the obvious, the only answer dying unborn as he pondered the straight-backed figure silhouetted against the sunlit window.

"I reckon..." Tom said and sighed, carefully placing the order on the cluttered table. "we'll have to be. We're all they've got."

"Yeah." Mal said and nodded as if to himself. "Yeah. I reckon so."


Memo: 18/03/06 STC (Standard Londinium Calendar)
ref: 37jp517xo
From: Persephone Sector Command
Governor-General Demetrios Tsohantaridis
To: Shechem, GSHQ
Attn: Grand Admiral Jean Paul le Clerk
Re: Second battle of Demeter

Johnny, I am sending this to you because if you don't get your people pull their thumbs out of their asses, I'm going to the press myself. Minimizing what happened here is a dumbass thing to pull right now! And you know this.

Yes, I know the extent of the casualties, I was here, remember? We all got a bit too used to the Feds just rolling over and playing dead for us. Nobody, and I mean nobody, expected them to regroup and come right back at us like this.

Sweet Mary, John... I had to sent the Volunteers in to slow them down. They almost took the damn Port!

But... oh, you would have been proud. These boys, green as all hell... and they stopped them cold. Took it on the chin and bled their life out but they stopped them. Persephone is secure.

It's brutal, though. Every unit took upwards of 30 percent casualties. That's the LOW margin, mind you. Several of them simply disintegrated, not enough effectives left to maintain as a separate outfit.

And those who survived... they've seen the elephant now. I look in their eyes and...

It's a brave new world we've made, where a 20-year-old kid looks at me with dead eyes like that.

Now that the 6th is here, I'm packing these boys on the first troopships I can get and sending them to the Greenleaf training camps. Maybe some of them will even make it back.

We've got to squash that whole democratic army bullshit. These are good kids, good soldiers, they can win this damn war of ours if we just give them training and officers!

And they deserve better than to be ignored. Splash what they did here over the front pages, John, or I will.

Love to Marcie and the kids,



The shell burst ten feet above the bunker, the fragments peppering the ground and the sound, howling, screeching, booming, cacophony boiling his blood and reverberating through his skull.

He clasped his hands above his ears and opened his mouth, just as Sergei taught him, and he was sure he was screaming but he could hear nothing, nothing at all. He turned to Tom to ask if he heard it and met his blinking, slightly confused eyes. Stirling was squatting against the wall and staring with bewilderment at the object in his hands.

"It's a foot, " he said suddenly and giggled. "Mine! It's my foot!"

And then he toppled over still laughing quietly. Sometimes it stopped there. And sometimes it didn't. He began to scream, and then Sokolnik vomited and Federals came and there was no time.

They just kept coming. Grey wave after gray wave. And their artillery seemed like a hand of God.

And when it was over he was alive. And so was Sergei. Mike, Lee and Daria. And Tom... of sorts.

And that was all.

"Yes." Mal said calmly and smiled, and in his pocket clutched the Bible. "I'm fine, counselor. But don't call me Captain."


"Tommy got off ok?" Sergei spat and tightened the bolt, grunting with effort, the newly minted emblem of his promotion to a Sergeant, splattered with oil and dirt.

"Ayep. He and Mike caught the last shuttle." Mal squinted and nodded his approval. "Try it now, Lee."

The motor barked, stalled and then turned over. "Perfect. That should do it."

"He's going to be just fine."

Mal didn't ask whom Sergei meant. Tom, going back, to take Sergei's post as the Senior Hand on Reynolds' Ranch or Mike, the solid, quiet giant of a man that could no longer stand the dark and wet his bed if woken without care.

"Yeah." He agreed. "I reckon he'll be at that."

"Hey, guys!" Daria appeared as out thin air, grinning as always, the stubborn lock of hair escaping the new cap. "Guess what?"

"You finally agreed to go out with Theo?" Lee ventured, safe in the realization that he was protected by the tractor's bulk.

"Nah," Sergei noted clinically, "This excited? Maybe she finally learned to cook."

Daria sniffed and with great dignity flipped them both off, turning demonstratively to Mal. "Our new CO is coming on Saturday! And do you know who it is? Do ya?"

Lee killed the motor, and even Sergei appeared mildly interested. They had been on Greenleaf for almost two months, retraining, undergoing psychiatric rehabilitation and being reformed as a new unit. They already had most of their NCOs and junior officers but the real brass just began arriving.

"Well?" Daria was almost dancing in place as she tugged at Mal's sleeve. "Do you know?"

Mal looked her over, measuringly and glanced at Sergei. "You figure she's gonna spontaneously combust if I don't ask?"

The older man grinned into his mustache. "Might at that."

"Jerks, the lot of you." Daria informed them sadly. "I oughtn't tell you, is what. Sons of bitches."

"Oh, spit it out." Mal chuckled. "Who is it? Le Clerk?"

Daria stared at him for a minute clearly torn between the desire for revenge and inability to keep the juicy bit of gossip to herself.

"Better," She finally blurted out, "it's Matshushima!"

Lee whistled. "As in The?"

"Dan Matshusima?" Sergei asked, his brows meeting in a slight frown. "The-"

"The one and only." Daria cackled, really dancing now, an impromptu jig of a true connoisseur of gossip. "Of the Matsushima Ronin and Prima fame. Gonna be our new Captain! Rumor is there is a bunch of Ronin coming too, fill us up to strength. And then we're off."

"Huh." Mal said.

Three pairs of eyes fixed on him.

"What?!" he protested. "I just said huh!"

The stares didn't waver.

"What? It just... a bit of a come down, ain't it? From Ronin to... to..."

"Us?" Lee snickered.

"Well... yeah."

Daria looked unconvinced but Sergei nodded slowly.

As the army continued to expand, the dearth of experienced officers and NCOs became overwhelming and the decision was finally taken to disperse the cadre of the most of the Free Companies throughout the newly formed units. It wasn't rare to find a former mercenary private being bumped to a corporal, a sergeant or even a lieutenant spot. The rate of promotion for the officers, especially the officer of known expertise like Matsushima, was even more dramatic.

"Mal's got a point." Sergei noted gravely. "Matsushima should have been bumped to at least a major's slot, long before this. Maybe even a colonel."

"I heard the Command offered but Dan turned them down."

Mal did his best to pretend that he meant to jump all along and tuned to favor the newcomer into the conversation with a flat unfriendly stare. "Oh yeah? And who are you? And Dan, is it?"

"Zoe," the tall black woman said, offering her hand. "And I met Matshushima once."

"Huh," Mal said again and, upon thought, accepted the offered handshake. "Gonna be joining us then?"

"Looks that way."


Lee was staring with frank disbelief. Sergei was biting his mustache -- whether to suppress laughter or a curse, Mal wasn't sure. Daria simply appeared star struck.

Mal glanced from the small figure, inspecting the troops at Zoe and leaned in slightly. "That's Matsushima?"

"Ayep." Zoe nodded gravely. "That's her."

Mal glanced back at the slight form of the young woman on the field in front of him and smiled tightly. "Forgot to tell me something, Zoe?"

"Why whatever do you mean, Mal?"

"Silence in the ranks!" Serge hissed and Mal shut up. This wasn't the time.


Night was the perfect time for putting a rat in Zoe's bedroll.


It was wet. Everything was wet. Mal never realized before how absolute the word could be.

"Come to New Kashmir." Lee was muttering, leafing through the soggy pages of a tourist pamphlet. "See the sights. Meet the girls. Enjoy the lovely weather. Niou-se."

Mal started to say something but subsided. He had to admit that 'urine shit' was a fairly apt description of their situation.

The squelching sound behind him alerted him to her presence a full minute before Daria's irrepressibly cheerful face appeared around the bend of the trench. "Guess what, guys!'

Mal winced. When Daria uttered those words, strong men were known to blanch.

"We are finally getting a new Sergeant!"

"Yay." Lee said flatly. "Whoo-hoo."

"Who is it?" Mal asked absently, wiping down his rifle with painstaking futility. It would get clogged again before sundown and even if it wasn't, at the moment it was only an expensive club, given that the ammunition runs had stopped a week ago.

On the plus side, it appeared that the Federals weren't doing much better. Aside from the random shelling, it's been pretty quiet. Kind of boring actually. Mal shrugged. That was fine by him. He had all the excitement he ever wanted in those first months of trying to push the entrenched Alliance forces off New Kasmir.

He swallowed and pulled his thoughts away from the memory of Sergei's face as...


Boring was good. He looked around the wet, mud-filled trench and sighed.

Good had definitely become a relative term since he joined the army.

"So? Who is it?" He repeated, glancing up.

"Wouldn't you like to know, Mr. Acting NCO." Daria's tongue darted out at him. "You're not the boss of me now. Caleb Zhao is."

"Caleb Zhao?" Zoe, unlike Daria, appeared almost soundlessly, plopping down by Mal. Only the more-stoic-than-usual expression on her face indicated her lack of success in finding a replacement machine gun.

"You know him?" Lee asked apathetically, still looking through the brochure.

"Heard. He's been with Danny-girl for a long time. She must really like us." Zoe frowned, than shrugged. "Or think we are totally incompetent."

"That narrows it right down, "Mal nodded at her complacently. "Thanks."

"No problem, former Acting Sergeant Reynolds."

"Caleb." Mal repeated, tasting the word. "What kind of name is that, anyhow?"

"Yeah." Lee agreed. "Sounds like some sort of a deranged preacher or something."

"Does it?" Sergeant Zhao asked calmly. "That's interesting."

"Niou-se!" Lee hissed, springing to his feet and once again Mal couldn't help but agree.


Winter didn't seem to end, Mal thought, blowing into cupped hands. First Kashmir, then Bernadette and now here. It seemed like it would always be winter. At least, Mal thought absently, it was real here. Honest. Snow and frost, not rain and muggy air.

He reached into his coat, turning the envelope between his trembling fingers, and looking at the dying fire. It took a while for the reply to catch up with him. The letter apparently chased him for three worlds, before finally finding him. For a brief moment he toyed with an idea of opening it but shrugged and fed it to the fire.

What could it possibly say. Platitudes? Forgiveness? Lee's parents wouldn't blame him.

Even though they should.

"Nice night, eh?"

"Sergeant Major! Captain!"

"Relax, Corporal." Matshushima grinned, dropping into a semi-lotus, "That's a wimpy little fire you got here." Zhao grunted his assent and thrust something at Mal. "Here, use this."

Mal glanced at the preferred paper and his lips quirked in a reluctant smile. Amnesty Tickets.


"No problem." Zhao stretched, his neck bone cracking. "Ow. Knew that shit would come in handy one day." He spat through his teeth and muttered something that Mal could have sworn sounded like regret that he too old and too dumb to take Federals up on their offer.

Matshushima stretched, catlike and lithe even under heavy coat. "Don't mind Caleb. He thinks we're on borrowed time. Never believed we'd last against Alliance this long, in the first place."

Mal glanced at the squat Sergeant. "You don't believe we can win?"

Zhao grinned, tired, humorless expression and didn't answer.

"Then..." Mal frowned, tried again but found no other way to ask it. "Why are you here? Why fight? If there's no hope, what's the point?"

The sergeant blinked and glanced at him, an almost startled expression flickering across his face. "For my mates, of course. What other reason is there that's any good?"

Mal felt Matsushima's eyes on him, knowing and amused and all too perceptive.

The camp was quiet, its silence only punctuated by the soft noises of the sleeping troops. Even Zoe had given in to the exhaustion, snoring with ladylike delicacy; Mal absently made a note to never let her live it down. Daria was nestled next to her, completely hidden by a mound of blankets.

"You think it will work, Sir? Sergeant?" He asked suddenly.

Neither Matshusima nor Zhao asked for clarification. Didn't need to. The Captain - Mal realized with a dim shock that it no longer went against the grain to think of her that way, or to call her Sir - remained silent. Instead Zhao shrugged. "Should. They ain't expecting us to come this way."

Well no, Mal thought. They ain't crazy unlike some people.

Matshusima giggled, a high, girlish sound and Mal realized with sudden mortification that he had spoken aloud. "I'm sorry, Sir. I ain't..."

"I said relax, Reynolds!' Matsushima waved a gloved hand. "You're right."

"I am?" Mal asked warily.

"Yep." His captain nodded cheerfully. "But it should work. Worked for Uncle Ishi, during Cerebus campaign so... we'll see."

"Of course," Zhao added grumpily, feeding more leaflets into the fire. "Old man Ishido didn't take us into the fucking tundra."

"You preferred the desert then?" Matsushima almost sounded impish, Mal realized. She suddenly looked her years and he remembered that she was not all that older than him after all. Simply brought up from birth to be a soldier, destined to inherit the Ronin.

"Don't seem so bad now, the desert." Zhao retorted. "Downright nice and friendly in fact, compared."

"Could be worse." Dan said shrugging.

"Really?" Mal glanced at her.

"Yep." Matshushima turned thoughtful. "We're lucky really. Once the Feds get smart and let Tsung run this war, then... then we'll see, what's what."

"What do you mean?"

"I met him a couple of times. Doesn't seem the kind of guy to be overly stressed by the media and public opinion."

Mal blinked, unwilling to admit that he once again lost the thread of the conversation.

"She means that once Tsung is in charge of the Libbies, they might stop playing nice, kid." Zhao chuckled grimly. "You gotta give 'em credit for sticking to their own rules so far, though. I ain't rightly sure we would in their shoes."

Matsushima nodded. "Take New Kashmir, for instance. All they needed to do to win that one is park a cruiser above the planet. We had nothing to throw at them. And once you own the gravity well... you own the planet."

Mal blinked, and with careful effort swallowed, keeping his voice even.

"You want me to give the Libbies credit because they didn't resort to mass murder through orbital bombardment of the civilian centers of population?" he enunciated clearly.

Sergeant Major chuckled grimly and glanced at Matsushima. "See? I done toldja. He's a good kid yet. It's too early."



"Why don't you go check on the lookouts, hm? I think some might have dozed off."

Zhao stared at his captain for a moment then suddenly nodded, getting up. "They did and I'll make them regret the day they were born, the little goat-fuckers."

Dan snickered softly, moving closer to the fire. "He will too."

Mal didn't return her smile. "What's this all about, cap'n?"

Matsushima sighed softly and reached into her pocket. "I've been putting this off. But I think it's time. You did well in that Kerensky skirmish. Very well... Sergeant Reynolds."


Sergei's old spot.

"We don't need a sergeant." Mal pointed out, staring at the chevron in front of him. "Not enough men. Caleb is doing fine.""

"Of course he is." Matsushima agreed placidly. "But, once we're off this rock, we're getting new recruits. So..."

We might not get off this rock, Mal wanted to say.

Pick Zoe, he thought.

I can't, he pleaded in his mind. Not after Persephone. They counted on me to lead them. They chose me and I killed them all. I can't. Not again.

"Why me?" He finally asked, his voice hoarse, hostile.

If Matsushima noticed the lack of the honorific, she didn't comment, and the hand offering him the chevron was still firm. "Because you're the man for the job, Sergeant. It's time to stand up and be counted."

The voice in the back of his mind that had been screaming at him, blaming him since Persephone, fell silent suddenly leaving nothing but the hollow, echoing emptiness. And in that emptiness his voice seems alien and strange.

"Yes, sir."


"Ow. Ow... It hurts, Mal. It really hurts!"

"You're going to be ok, mei-mei." Mal swallowed and tried to keep his hands from shaking as he bandaged the wound. "It's gonna be fine."

"It really hurts!" Daria wasn't screaming any more, just crying into his shoulder, a soft and hopeless sound that seemed to reverberate though her entire body. "I don't wanna die!"

"You're not gonna die!"

Mal sighed, a shuddering, ragged exhale and composed himself, forcing a smile. "You're tougher than this! You're gonna get through it. We'll get you to a doc, patch you up. You ain't got a choice here, Dar. I just got promoted, who am I gonna celebrate it with, eh? Ain't no other good ole Shadow boys left, around here. We're the last, eh?"

"I ain't not a boy." Daria whispered softly, the violent shudders slowly subsiding, as she continued to cling to him.

"Well, "Mal drawled, tucking her hair behind her ear gently. "Ain't none of us perfect."

She giggled weakly. "Dumbass. Hey, Mal... guess what?"




"Tah-mah-duh huun-dan! Tah-mah-duh huun-dan!"

"Oooh... two mother-humping sons of bitches..." Tracey glanced at Zoe slyly. "That's gotta be a trainee problem."

"Hm." Zoe replied noncommittally, and glanced at the sputtering Mal with a speculative air about her.

"You think I'm wrong, don't you?' Tracey challenged.

Zoe shrugged and bit her lip thoughtfully as she examined her rifle.

"Care to wager some money on it?" Tracey, refused to be ignored, waved a wad of bills in front of Zoe. She sighed deeply and looked at him.

"If it'll get you to shut up. How much?"


"Be serious."

Tracey blinked. "Okaaay. Sixty!"

"If you're going to waste my time..."

"All right, all right! An even hundred. I say he just met our newest recruits!"

Zoe shook her head. "Supply."

"You're on!"

"Huh choo-shang tza-jiao duh tzang-huo!" Mal screamed suddenly, scaring a passing by private half to death.

Tracey suddenly looked apprehensive. 'Animal-fucking bastard' was a bit too specific to be aimed at the general condition of their new comrades in arms.

"Doesn't mean anything." He protested defensively and Zoe looked at him with pitying amusement.

"Again! That son of ten fathers Galen did it to us again!"

"...Tzao-gao." Tracey said sadly and meekly handed over the money.

Zoe patted him on the shoulder and got up lithely. "How short are we this time, Sergeant Major?"

"Eight crates of ammunition for the 48s and about 13 of food rations." Mal ground out, clearly biting back something entirely too uncomplimentary to be said aloud about the official representative of the Liang Cartel. "Bought and paid for. But ain't delivered."

Tracey whistled softly. "Cheeky bastard is getting altogether too greedy." He shrugged. "Knows we can't do nothing to him."

Zoe made another noncommittal sound and Mal squinted at her balefully. "What?!"

"Nothing, Sergeant."

Mal's eyes narrowed into dark slits. "Spit. It. Out."

"It's just that Liangs never tried this with Caleb, is all."

Tracey nodded reflexively and than frantically shook his head and frowned at Zoe when Mal turned his glower on him.

Reynolds observed Tracey glaring admonishingly at Zoe for even suggesting such a thing and then spat.

"Right. Tracey, with me. Zoe get the First Platoon and meet me at Galen's."

"Yes, Sergeant Major."

Tracey followed Mal through the maze of barracks and tents, waiting an appropriate time before finally venturing a cautious inquiry. "Ummm, Mal? Why are we going to Galen's?"

Mal didn't even slow down. "To negotiate a trade dispute."


"Sergeant Reynolds."

"Yes, Sir."

Captain Matsushima squinted at him. "Have you by any chance had the opportunity to peruse today's paper?"

"No, Sir."

"Interesting story in there. It seems Factor Galen was assaulted by a group of masked thugs, who at gun point forced him to provide the pass codes to his warehouse and absconded with an unidentified amount of goods."

"Terrible, Sir."

"I agree. There're some very surprising things about this matter however."

"How so, Sir?"

"I am glad you asked. Well, firstly this hooliganism was perpetrated with an almost military precision. One might even commend the criminals for their impeccable skill at small unit tactics."


"MmHm. A suspicious investigator might have even attempted to blame some of the League's loyal soldiers for this shameful incident. Fortunately Mr. Galen emphatically denied any such connection. In fact his insistence that these was the work of civilian criminals bordered on uncanny. Almost if his life depended on it."

"The Liang Cartel has a long history of cooperation with Armed forces, Sir."

"Hm. Indeed. It is also interesting that Mr. Galen decided to forgo filing an insurance claim and vowed to restock his warehouse from his own funds. It is almost as if he doesn't want the insurance company investigating his business dealings."

"Most puzzling, Sir."

"Isn't it, just? On the other hand I'm sure it's all for the best. There has been too much baseless allegation about some of Cartels' failure to honor their commitments. Not good for morale that sort of thing."

"Depressing, one might say, Sir."

"One might. You may go, Sergeant Major. My compliments to the 1st Platoon. They have been working hard lately, I think they deserve a week of unscheduled leave."

"Wilco, Sir."


"I heard they just laid down another dreadnaught."

"Bendis..." Ellis shook his head warningly.

"No really! Gonna call it Kalima's Revenge. They say those things are huge!"

Tracey shrugged, from his corner of the bunker. "They had the plans for them monsters for years. Too expensive they said. Better stick with cruisers and gunboats. And then we started making our own cruisers and they made Tsung High Strategos so now..."

"Kalima's Revenge." Zoe finished for him.

Tracey nodded. "Just so."

"I heard that the first one, Liberty, took on the entire 3rd Fleet and it was a draw."


"What? It's true!"

"Shut up anyway! You're getting on my damn nerves." Ellis got up, stretching angrily. "This war ain't over just because the Libbies learned to build big ships. They still need to get us! Here! On the ground!"

"Oh, that's comforting, " Tracey muttered, careful not to let the lieutenant hear his sotto voce commentary.

"This is gonna be the biggest battle of the war."

Ellis was really into his schpiel now, Mal thought tiredly, giving up his attempts to fall asleep and exchanging a wry look with Zoe as Ellis went on in an almost ecstatic tone of a Dust addict

"Thirteen brigades of the best infantry League has to field. Plus three Legions of the Sayarets! Twenty air tanks, the best New Frankfurt ever built. Plus the terrain. Why a kid with a fucking slingshot could hold this valley!"

Ellis grinned. "And when we break the Libbies here... That's gonna be it. Their morale will crumble. You mark my words, the Battle of Serenity is going to end of this war."


"Ellis is dead, SarjMaj. You're in charge."

"What?! Fuck!" Mal closed his eyes and got a hold on his temper, before turning back to Tracey. "What in the Good Lord's name am I in charge of?"

Tracey blinked uncertainly and glanced at Zoe. "Umm... I'd say about half a brigade?"

Zoe nodded. "About right. Mebbe a little less. Fifteen hundred or so."

"Well." Mal chuckled suddenly. "Never thought I'd see the day. I wonder if they'll make me a real colonel after this."

"Promotion comes fast in this man's army, SarjMaj." Tracey grinned, his teeth shockingly white contrasted with his grimy face. "So what now?"

"Now they come at us and we kill them all. " Mal said flatly.

"Simple, yet suicidal." Zoe noted clinically. "I like it."

"This, my Nubian Goddess, is where we separate the men from the goats."

"I'll go get the crowbar then. And don't ever call me that again."



Both disappeared out of the bunker still bickering. Mal stayed, looking through binoculars at the enemy lines.

There were so many of them. Always so many.

And Tsung. Tsung wasn't afraid to kill them all if it got him what he wanted. The rumor was that even his own soldiers called him the Butcher.

Implacable, unstoppable like a force of nature.

He fed the grinder of the Azov Campaign with his own soldiers and Independents alike until even the right wing newspapers screamed in horror at the casualty figures.

And he ignored them.

He won Azov, a small, terrified voice gibbered at the back of Mal's mind. He did, and now he's doing it here. It's only been two days and you're already the ranking officer. And now you're in command of the forward position, you are in command of a full regiment and he's coming for you.

It's Azov all over again. He'll drown us in blood and bodies and tech. Because he has them to sacrifice, has them to lose and we don't.

It's just like Azov, just like Persepho...



We stopped them on Persephone.

We did.

And we'll stop them here.

I will.

"You're not getting Serenity, you murderous bastard." Mal whispered. "I ain't losing today. Come. We'll show you how we settle this out on the Rim."


The next day, the bloody but unbroken remnant of the relief force, led by Matsushima tore through the Federal lines.

"Didn't think we forgot you, did ya, Reynolds?"

Before the day was out he was in command again, the Captain coughing blood from a punctured lung.

"You just hold the lines, Mal. They'll come for us."

And they did.

Six times the Independents buckled and were ready to break, but the Sayarets came roaring in through the rain of fire and metal, somehow outflanking the Federals, and doing the impossible. Advancing uphill, taking horrendous losses but advancing and breaking the back of Federal offensive.

They held on. Laughing, crying, cursing and watching the Sayarets prove their motto.

They did indeed die hard.

So they held on.

Cheering hoarsely and tearing their throats, as the Frankfurters swooped in, breaking through the teeth of the Federal anti-air defense to stop them cold on the verge of victory

Through the pounding by artillery, that never ending, torrent of death from beyond their reach.

Through the attack after attack that saw tens of thousands of the Federals left screaming and dying on the mountain slope. They held on.

No cease fire to collect the bodies, said Tsung.

And so there wasn't rest for them. There wasn't relief.

Only the days blurring into nights full of death and fire and madness.

They held on.

Until one day, the tanks did not come.


She recognized him. Up until the very end, she did. Smiling gently when he covered her with his blanket. A sad and understanding smile.

Drawing her hand through his hair when he broke one night, kneeling at her bunk and, hiding his face in her chest, cried.

She held out longer than most. Even outlasted some of the healthy ones, who couldn't take it anymore and ended it themselves.

There were still almost six hundred of them on that ridge, when the talks started.

By the end of the week, two hundred were gone.

She was among the last.

There would be many theories, many scholarly works written, explaining why the Unification Wars really did end at the battle of Serenity. Many would dispute it. After all, it was only the Consortium that sighed the peace treaty shortly after. The Rim held on for another year. More if one counted the guerilla campaigns.

In due time the revisionist histories would appear pointing out that the war wasn't won at all. After all, not one, but several Free Companies disappeared altogether, gone beyond the Rim, taking their pride and their grudges with them.

Perhaps to return one day.

But for Malcolm Reynolds the war ended when Dan Matsushima died. Of a curable wound, serene and peaceful and abandoned by both sides.

He buried her alone, at night. Although he thought Zoe guessed, of course. And with her he buried many things..

Oh, not all of it, not the entire war and its memories and deaths, betrayals and frustrations.


The ugly hooks of it were still in him.

He was still the Sergeant Major, one of Serenity's heroes. He had to be. Had to be for his 400.

To see them through the camps, through the rumors of the Free Companies returning, sometimes the rumors of Dan leading them. Through the Amnesty Hearings and Oaths of Allegiance. They needed him, his name was called and that was that.

He still was that on the rainy autumn day when he met a sad, old man outside the Serenity memorial, kneeling alone in the dirt before the Monument to the Fallen.

Tsung did not look at all like Mal thought he would.

He was still that, coldly settling up with an Alliance carpetbagger, backed by a newly arrived garrison who told him that he was lucky that the farm was bought and not confiscated.

Even when he heard about Ma and Tom, he was still that. Still the Sergeant Reynolds.

That was his shield. His mantra. His tie to sanity in the universe gone mad.

Until he found Her.

His ship.

"To all of us," His captain told him once. "Fate gives three beginning. For we're wasteful creatures, humans, and seldom take the first-offered chance. Those who learn to recognize the second chances, Mal. Those who can feel them calling, singing -- they are the people to be envied."

And in the end Mal was not surprised at all, to prove his Captain right one last time.


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