Hell in a Handbasket - Ch 4
Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Ch 4- Jayne and Zoe pursue River, hoping to find out more about who is controlling her.


Deafening silence followed River’s departure. It was a full half minute before the tension broke and Mal clicked the safety on his weapon.

“River!” Simon called, running to the back door in chase. Mal caught the back of his shirt. He struggled and punched, but Mal ducked easily.

“You, tend Sky,” he ordered, keeping his voice low and firm. Jayne was already kneeling next to his wife, dabbing her face with his glove to get a better sense of where the blood was coming from.

Mal went to the back door and looked out, but River had already disappeared into the foothills. Zoë came next to him, and Mal caught her before she could run out.

“She’s going east, toward the fires,” Zoë said quickly, craning her neck to see out the door.

“You can’t know that for sure,” Mal said.

Zoë took a step back, squaring her shoulders militantly, replacing her careless urgency with sagacious calm. “I hit her with a tracking dart.”

Zoë held up a GPS handheld and pointed to the dot indicating the fleeing River. Impressed, but grim, Mal gathered as much reason and wit as he could, and enough courage to let Zoë fly on her own.

“Follow her,” Mal said. “You and Jayne.”

Zoë looked at him, awestruck, but there was no time for a pep talk now. She had been preparing for this job her whole life.

Mal summoned Jayne with a shout and a wave, and within seconds, they had gathered the gear they needed. Jayne kept looking back at Sky, but Mal tapped his arm, and Jayne changed his focus to the task at hand.

“See where she’s going and what she’s up to,” Mal ordered, testing the batteries in the radio before handing it to Zoë. “Track, but do not engage.”

They left, and Mal locked the door behind them. This was not his best day ever.


Jayne was getting too old for this – tracking a young, vibrant, thoroughly possessed woman across the foothills of Kerry, thick with smoke. One day he would convince Mal to retire to a paradise planet so they could live out their days as old men… or at least as old fathers.

He remembered so clearly the days before Little Zoë was born, when her daddy died saving the ‘verse from the evil Alliance. Jayne had thought it ended there – that he’d lived through every story worth telling. Now here he was, seventeen years later, still alive, watching little Zoë take the first steps into the same age-old battle that took her father’s life. He was passing the torch. He was too old for this, and she was far too young.

Zoë handed him a handkerchief from her satchel and he held it over his face to keep the smoke from stinging his lungs. He could see the glow of the blaze, and they were heading right for it. A gust of wind nearly knocked Jayne over, and he closed his eyes as a thick plume of smoke passed. Zoë grabbed hold of his hand, and they pressed against each other, back to back, ready to defend themselves when the air cleared.

The smoke thinned, and they were still alive. Jayne opened his eyes and scanned quickly. They’d lost River again.

“She’s that way,” Zoë said softly, touching his arm, then pointing.

Jayne checked the tracker in her hand, and they set off again.

“That was fast thinking, hitting her with a tracker,” Jayne said.

Zoë smiled proudly. “Thanks.”

“Next time, try thinking of something that won’t get you shot at. River doesn’t miss, even with her eyes closed.”

Zoë deflated a little, but would not be crushed. “She missed me.”

“That’s ‘cause whoever’s possessing her is a bad shot.”

“Or she’s fighting back,” Zoë said firmly. “There’s still a chance to save her.”

“And if there isn’t?”

Jayne could tell she was still trying to convince herself that there was hope. No matter how long they worked together, no matter how much like family they had become, Jayne had always felt he carried the bullet for River. He thought the time had come back there in the cargo bay, but Mal had given him an option and he’d shot the gun out of River’s hand instead. Mal still thought they could save her. So did Zoë.

“We have to try,” she said firmly.


Simon knelt over Sky, but the first aid kit hadn’t been replenished in the last few hours, so he used his sleeve in lieu of gauze. The cuts from before had busted open, and the entire right side of Sky’s face was covered in blood. She had a shallow gash by her eye, her lip was busted, and her nose bled profusely. He tilted her head sideways so she wouldn’t choke, but she had other plans.

As soon as she had a firm grasp on consciousness, Sky lifted her head and hawked a mouthful of blood. She moaned softly, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.

“Stay down,” Simon soothed. “Don’t move.”

“This is gonna go down as one of those really crappy days,” Sky complained, ignoring him and pushing up onto her elbows. She surveyed the cargo bay. Finally, Kaylee ran in with a handful of supplies and Simon started cleaning Sky’s wounds. Her nose wasn’t broken, but it was bruised seriously.

Sky squirmed irritably, wincing with every touch of the gauze to her skin. Simon sent Kaylee for an anesthetic, knowing he’d need it to stitch Sky up properly. Sky groaned and touched the bump on the back of her head, which had probably doubled in size since the landing fiasco.

“All those times me and River sparred, I never realized she was going so easy on me,” Sky laughed.

“You really should lie down,” Simon said again as she pushed herself to sitting. She would’ve listened to him if Jayne were here.

“You know better than to tell me that,” Sky grunted and smiled slyly. “You’re out of sedatives aren’t you?”

Frustrated, Simon placed pressure on her nose as he cleaned it. She winced and pulled back.

“Ow,” Sky said crossly, but he kept using the pressure to coax her down. “Ow, ow, ow, ow!”

“Doc!” Mal hollered, and Simon looked back innocently.

“I need her whole,” Mal said irately. “This is no time for games.”

Simon looked back at Sky who now lay obediently on the ground, brooding, and holding her hand protectively over her face.

Simon kept that unnervingly cold tone in his voice, and addressed Sky quietly. “I can’t waste meds getting you to listen. I will tie you down if I have to.”

Sky chuckled, but ducked her eyes in defeat, surrendering to his care. “Cap said no games.”


Mal wanted to believe the day couldn’t get any worse, but he was distinctly aware that this was only the middle – if they’d made it to the middle yet. Inara was still out on a supply run, he’d just sent Jayne and Zoë to chase a rogue River, Sky would probably need another hour before the world stopped swaying, and even then she wouldn’t last long in a fight. If Cole’s arm weren’t broken, Mal would’ve expected to see him on the catwalk next to Zoë, weapon at ready.

Of the younger kids, Cole was the only one Mal trusted to have his own gun. Mal had taken his son to get it on his eleventh birthday, despite Inara’s protests. But Mal had spent time training all the kids, and he’d recognized that point when Cole stopped seeing it as a game and accepted the gun as a tool, and its use as a basic necessity of their way of life. As much as he was still a boy, Mal’s son was taking his first steps into manhood. He’d nearly gotten himself splattered, running to catch his falling brother. He wouldn’t have done that a year ago.

Feeling woozy himself, Mal went to the Infirmary to find something to clear the ringing in his ears and check on his younger son. Michael lay on the center bed, his chest bare, a long scar across his belly, every joint and long-bone braced. Mal’s jaw tensed and his insides quivered with empathy. He leaned over to see.


Mal froze, and looked at his son’s face. The voice wasn’t right, but there was little Michael, gazing up at him, eyes wide and calm as the sea. Mal’s kids never called him daddy. It was always the Chinese – always Baba. Inara had started it, Zoë perpetuated it, and Mal had learned to love it. It helped with telling him and Simon apart. So when Michael called him ‘daddy,’ he knew it wasn’t his son. Like Simon had said about River, he didn’t even recognize the person whose eyes he was looking into.

“Hey, little one,” Mal said cautiously.

He wanted to say don’t speak. He knew he should call for Simon. He was mesmerized by the depth in Michael’s eyes and scared as hell that the boy would defy his injuries and follow River out the door. Michael scrutinized him carefully, then spoke again.

“Tell Sky I’m sorry – sorry for shooting her.”


Michael looked sideways, but couldn’t move his neck for the bracing.

“Not much time,” he said. “He’ll notice me gone. But he doesn’t know my secret. I can talk to you.”

Mal’s jaw dropped. “River?”

“Am I speaking? Say something!” Michael – River – demanded urgently. “Ten hours. I need you there.”

“What is happening to you? What happened to Michael?”

Michael’s face screwed quizzically. “Bu wen.”


Michael’s eyes widened in alarm. “Don’t say his name. Don’t bring him here.”

“Michael,” Mal repeated urgently.

“Not strong enough,” Michael whined. He screamed, fighting the braces and straps holding him to the bed. Mal cradled his face, whispering desperate soothes as Michael’s eyes rolled back.

“Baba!” It was a soundless shriek, but more typical of Michael than the loud cries. Michael’s eyes squeezed shut, and his back arched in silent fit. Michael never left a mark on the soundscape if he didn’t have to, and it was the most terrifying muted scream Mal ever felt. He cupped his hand over Michael’s ear and leaned in until their faces touched. Unable to clear his own mind like he wanted, he focused on repeating a short poem that Michael had made up during one of their games. It seemed silly, but it was the most effective way to calm his son.

Michael pressed his cheek against Mal’s and panted heavily.

“You sent her away,” he whimpered, just before passing out.


Jayne had found a way to tie the handkerchief around his big head so that he didn’t have to keep holding it. They’d been tracking River for nearly an hour, off the plateau, between the foothills, and now into the burning forest. Twice already, they’d been sprinkled by aircraft dropping chemical retardants to fight the fire. Jayne was glad they both wore long sleeves.

“There,” Jayne whispered, pointing as he acquired visual on River again. Zoë rested her hand on the butt of her gun and stepped forward, but Jayne placed held his arm sideways to stop them.

River paused, listening.

Jayne pressed his lips together. He was used to doing this with Sky or Mal. Zoë knew stealth, but not tracking. She didn’t know any of the signs they used in the field.

“Stay,” Jayne whispered, leaving her to cross-flank.

Satisfied with the sounds of the forest, River started moving again. Zoë followed almost immediately – too closely. Although River didn’t stop, Jayne could tell by the way her head was bowed that she heard Zoë behind her. Her chin never turned his way, so he figured she didn’t know he was on the opposite side. Zoë must’ve noticed too, because she fell back and moved quietly, to a point where Jayne could barely find her. The girl learned quickly.


Mal hunched over the make-shift computer, punching in codes carefully. He’d crashed the thing twice in the last hour, and had since learned not to hit the escape key – ever. There were several ships in orbit, but none looked like the one that had shot them down, if that is what happened. The whole thing was starting to feel like a mass hallucination, and given the psychic chaos with River and Michael, that was not beyond the realm of possibility.

He hadn’t told anyone about River talking through Michael. Didn’t know how. Didn’t want to believe that his little boy could be a gorram time bomb waiting to go off. He would ask Zoë, when she got back. Zoë knew more than anyone about these things; that’s why he’d sent her after River. He worried for Zoë being out there with Jayne, but tried not to at the same time. She was strong and he’d trained her as best he could. He’d just always imagined going on this first job with her. But everything had gone to hell so quick and Jayne wasn’t short two pints of blood.

Mal switched view from space to the world, locating the mule. The feed kept switching, but they were on a four minute rotation and he got half a second of looking before the view changed again. He’d caught Inara just as she left town and she was blasting across the open lands so fast that Mal suspected trouble. The setting sun was no help, so Mal found his binoculars and went to the top of the ship to use his own eyes.

The winds had shifted and the air was clearing up, but now the day was late enough and the sun was red of its own accord. Mal heard the mule before he saw it, and he wondered what had lit such a fire under Inara. What if she’d been body snatched like River had and she wreaked havoc on the ship? He’d wait until he saw her eyes. He’d know then.


Inara wanted to make it back to Serenity before sunset. The temperature had dropped ten degrees since she’d left town, and the wind whipping harshly against her skin only made it more noticeable. She didn’t know if it was the glare of sunset that prevented her from seeing Serenity, or if they hadn’t yet restored the external lights. Her radio was buried under the fresh supplies, and the cost of leaving town with it was higher than she’d anticipated.

Cresting the last hill, the ship finally came into view, resting securely on the plateau just where she’d left it. The back door was closed, meaning no one was watching for her return. She only prayed things had not gotten worse since she’d left.

Pulling the mule to a stop, she hopped off and tried the door.


Frustrated, she ran back to the mule, and started digging out the radio. When she heard the first click of a weapon cocking, she had her gun drawn and trained on the sound before the sound completed. She relaxed when she saw Mal, but he watched her warily, keeping the gun trained. When Inara removed her goggles and scarf, Mal lowered the weapon slowly.

“You locked me out,” Inara said in mock accusation, wary of his cautious behavior, but pretending to ignore it.

Mal finally holstered the weapon and unlocked the door. “It’s been that kind of day. Report.”

It was so cold – his voice, the night air. Inara feared it wouldn’t be warm and safe inside like she wanted.

“I have all the medical supplies, but only rank one mechanical,” she answered, waiting for the back ramp to lower, then driving in slowly. “They seemed a little too interested in a possible salvage.”

Mal nodded, and went to the bottom of the stairs, hollering up. “Tams! Your stuff is here!”

He locked the door, then returned to the mule, reaching up a hand. Inara handed him the first of the medicine crates. She caught the flash in his eye when he noticed the ring missing from her finger.

“I didn’t see anyone following,” Mal said.

Inara looked at the closed door, shaking her head. “Don’t expect them to come with torches and pitch forks. These are the high class criminals. The kind with experimental weapons that knock you out of the sky. The kind that can take what they want and make us disappear.”

Inara sat heavily on the side of the mule, then inhaled and straightened her posture. She wiped her face with the back of her hand, leaving long black streaks of smeared ash. Over the years, she’d become more lax about maintaining a pristine appearance all the time, starting mainly when she’d been pregnant with Cole. Mal found it endearing most times, but today, in this single hand stroke, she’d wiped away as much strength as beauty. The last of her defenses were crumbling under the strain, and her inner warrior frantically threw up whatever shield she could find to keep from breaking.

Silently, Mal sat next to her, placing a hand over hers, rubbing his thumb over her naked ring finger. Closing her eyes and swallowing, Inara reached into her blouse, pulled out her wedding ring, and handed it to Mal. Warmth stirred in her soul as he slid the ring on her finger and kissed her hand. They shared a brief smile, the tender connection momentarily lifting them above their circumstances into the rapture of togetherness.

It was a stolen moment, but it was enough. In it, they each found the strength they needed to keep going, and neither wanted to move.

Inara looked sideways, then back upstairs, knowing that Simon and Kaylee hadn’t come for their supplies because they were probably sitting together, having stolen moments of their own.

“The boys made supper,” Mal said softly. “Seems we were being neglectful.”

Inara nodded wistfully. “Shame on us.”


Jayne tried to tell himself that it was the smoke burning his lungs, but the throb in his hip told him he was just getting old. That, or he’d been shot in the hip one too many times. He opted for the latter, applauded the subsequent miracle of Emily’s conception and the wholeness of his man parts, and used the vigor that came with thoughts of his wife toward keeping his mind off his burning lungs and throbbing hip.

River had picked up pace twenty minutes ago, and he practically had to run to keep up. He caught more glimpses of Zoë now. They were in the thick of the blaze, surrounded by a ring of flame, and Jayne hoped they could find their way out again.

River stopped suddenly, and Zoë, to her credit, veered wide rather than make a ruckus trying to stop. In the midst of the trees stood a one-roomed log house, with a thatched roof, clearly designed to blend in. The house would not survive if the fire closed in.

A guard in a green uniform stood by the door, gun strapped to his hip, fire extinguisher within arms reach. Jayne figured him local law or small-time hire, because he didn’t recognize the uniform. River strode purposefully up to the guard, who stood arrogantly. He crossed his arms, clearly not expecting trouble from someone as unimposing as River, so he wasn’t prepared when she struck him, driving the heel of her hand into his nose, going beyond breaking it, and shoving the cartilage into his brain. The man fell to the ground, seized, and died. River stepped over him to go inside.

Zoë dashed out of the forest, making a beeline for the door, nearly colliding with the next guard that came out. The man knocked Zoë to the ground, but she rolled and drew her gun. Jayne charged through the trees, bringing his fist down on the guard’s head, knocking him cold.

The man collapsed, and the forest went silent. Zoë stayed down until Jayne reached out a hand to help her up. He gave Zoë a stern look with Mal’s mantra all over it – don’t kill anyone you don’t have to.

“I was just gonna kneecap him,” Zoë said defensively.

“Get a few kills under your belt, then you can get casual about kneecapping.” The last thing he wanted was for her first kill to be an accident. Saving the lecture, he dragged the body of the unconscious guard away from the door. Zoë holstered her weapon, reached for the feet of the guard River had killed and did the same. When they’d gone about three trees deep into the forest, Zoë paused and knelt over the dead guard, fingering the patch on his shirt.

“I know that sign,” she whispered, her breath quickening. “I’ve seen it before.”

Jayne pulled out his knife and cut out the insignia.

“Back to the ship,” he said, standing.

“But –”

“It’s getting dark and we have but a hundred rounds between us.”

Zoë raised an eyebrow, knowing that most of those hundred rounds were strapped to Jayne. Jayne shifted on his feet, not appreciating the resistance he sensed in her.

“This was recon,” Jayne explained. “Now we regroup and plan.”

“I have a plan. I’m going in after Aunt River.”

Jayne grabbed Zoë’s elbow as she headed back to the house. “That place is not what it seems.”

“Every minute she’s in there puts the rest of us in danger –”

The door to the house opened. Jayne clamped a hand over Zoë’s mouth and pulled her back, further into the woods, then up the nearest tree that looked like it could support him. Another armed guard glanced warily out the door, looking for his comrades. The man noticed the drag marks on the ground and looked into the woods, radioing someone inside that he may need backup. He pulled a hi-tech laser pistol and cautiously followed the trail.

Jayne released Zoë and climbed higher into the tree, looking for an escape that didn’t involve going down. He drew his gun as the guard followed the markings and uncovered the two bodies, then stabilized himself so he could aim.

The branch below him creaked as Zoë adjusted position and the guard spun around, trying to source the sound. Zoë shot him between the eyes.

Jayne bit back his surprise as Zoë jumped to the ground, then turned dangerously.

“There’s one. I’m going in.”

Jayne hurried out of the tree to stop her. His boots had barely hit dirt before two more guards emerged from the house, having heard the shot. Zoë froze, but they spotted her easily, standing in open forest. Turning on her heels, she ran, and Jayne waited until she’d passed him before he started running too. If anything happened to Zoë, Mal would kill him!

“Remember what I said about not getting shot!”

Zoë looked sideways and grinned adventurously. “You’re just jealous because I shot first.”


Chapter 5


Wednesday, December 17, 2008 5:33 PM


Very interesting where you are taking this story.


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