BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

AMDOBELL

The DUPLICITY Series: 40. "Insidious"
Friday, December 19, 2008

"River is alarmed by changesshe cannot control. As Badger reveals things are even worse than they can imagine more bad news is on the horizon."


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 1870    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

TITLE: "INSIDIOUS" AUTHOR: Alison M. DOBELL FANDOM: "FIREFLY" PAIRING: Zoe/Wash. Kaylee/Simon. Mal/Inara. RATING: G. STATUS: Sequel to "DEMONIC FORCES". ARCHIVE: Yes. Just let me know where. FEEDBACK: Welcomed. EMAIL: AlisonMDobell@aol.com WEBSITE: None. All Firefly stories archived at Fireflyfans.net

SUMMARY: "River is alarmed by changes she cannot control. As Badger reveals things are even worse than they can imagine more bad news is on the horizon." The usual disclaimers apply. The characters and 'Firefly' are the property and gift of Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy. No infringement of copyright is intended.

"INSIDIOUS"

"Firefly" story

Written by Alison M. DOBELL

* * * * *

She could feel something inching its' way through the pathways of her mind, a barely there tendril worming deeper and deeper. An insidious yet silent intruder. Every mental defence slowly but inexorably breached without effort before the alarm could be raised. River was not afraid, confident that whatever it was it could be overcome. At least, she was not afraid at first.

With the crew's reaction to Badger's duplicity still flooding her senses it had been hours before River became fully aware that what she was sensing was not a side effect. It was so vague, so peripheral, that like smoke she had difficulty grasping what it was but now she knew what it was not. Not an after image, an echo left of strong competing emotions. No. This was something different. Something 'other' and none of her mental failsafes appeared to have any effect. It was beginning to scare her. What was it? Where had it come from and what was it trying to do? Was it a virus or something controlled by an intelligence not her own? Or was she really, finally, taking that last irrevocable step into madness?

River Tam had been sleeping, dozing to be precise. Perched on the edge of sleep and waking, poised to fall into that deep welcome slumber that brought the nearest thing to peace she could attain in this 'verse. Being fully awake and aware was more fun, she didn't like being passive even when her body needed the rest. It was one of the things she had in common with her Captain though she would never tell Simon that. He worried enough. Now, she could only thank whatever prescience had kept sleep at bay otherwise she would not have known she was under some kind of attack until it was too late. Unable to find where the intruder began or ended, River tried to approach the problem logically. To compartmentalise her brain and her thoughts, running a mental sweep to locate and identify the intruder.

Meanwhile the crew had decided that one of them should stay with Badger and keep an eye on the annoying little king pin so they were taking it in turns to stand guard. Mistress Barbette had protested but been ignored. As for Badger he didn't argue, only too aware that any goodwill the crew might have had towards him had been extinguished by his latest act of selfishness and greed. Also, he didn't feel so good. Unsteady on his feet and having lapses when he would find himself staring into space with no recollection of how long he had been doing so was all manner of terrifying. At least he wasn't bleeding any more but neither was he talking, not even to whine, and that made the crew even more wary around him.

River woke with a start, alarmed that despite her best efforts she had fallen asleep. Eyes springing open as her body tensed. Something had changed. Something so subtle and faint that only her highly tuned senses and instincts had picked up on it. River reached out with her mind, trying not to move or telegraph her thoughts to her subconscious as if she could sneak up on the vague sense of a foreign presence then realised that it was harder to track now because it wasn't moving. A dark sense of dread and forboding impinged on her consciousness, her heart rate increasing exponentially as she realised she was in deep trouble. She needed Simon and he wasn't here! A wail of panic began to flood her mind, only held at bay with great effort.

Scrambling out of bed she tried to remain calm but it was a losing battle. Bare feet racing in time with her heartbeat, mouth dry and flapping in a soundless mime of panic as her mind began screaming louder and louder. River couldn't keep her fear under control, why couldn't she do that? When had the intruder taken over and why hadn't she seen it coming? Total unreasoning panic was driving her now, her feet slapping on the cold ship's deck she ran erratically through the ship, her thoughts fragmenting and scattering the moment she began to form them as if it had picked up on her fear and was using her mind against her.

* * * * *

"*Shifu*, we have the location."

The Operative nodded, his face expressionless but eyes calmly intent. The focus was somewhat unnerving. "You know what to do."

The Lieutenant entered the co-ordinates in the Predator's navigation console then set the sleek vessel to execute. As smooth as silk the craft slid through space, increasing speed with hardly a change in engine tone or vibration. The top of the line pursuit craft was then put in stealth mode, masking its' signature so that other vessels would be unable to detect it until it was too late. The Operative was not worried about other craft. Only one ship concerned him right now, a vessel that had eluded his employers for far too long. Always managing to slip through some tiny loophole in Alliance law but not now. Not this time. Serenity had something they wanted and it was time to collect.

* * * * *

Zoe and Wash had just finished another languid but intense bout of love making. Their naked sweat soaked bodies glistening in the dimmed lighting of their bunk. Wash ran the fingers of his right hand over the dips and curves of his wife's lush body, drinking her in with his fingertips as he did with his eyes. Her lazy smile content and sated as she watched him through heavy hooded lids. His eyes still holding a trace of the part of him that constantly could not believe this amazing woman was really his.

"I'm here, *zhangfu*." She murmured in a low husky voice.

"How d'you know what I was thinkin', *bao bei*?"

She leaned towards him and kissed the breath right out of him. "I always know."

Wash blinked, half sleepy, half stupid but waking fast. His libedo way ahead of him. "You do? I mean, you're not psychic or anythin' or...?"

She laughed, a light warm musical sound that delighted his ear. It wasn't often he got to hear and see her like this, so relaxed and open. Even though they had been married a good while Zoe never ever really let her guard down completely but now he was seeing a glimpse of just how spectacular she could be when she did. Wow. And all this was his! Rolling half over her Wash gave an evil grin, mischief sparkling in his eyes. Wide awake and ready to prove it. "Do you know what I'm thinkin' now, sweet lips?"

The pleasure sighed out of her making his heart trip hammer with excitement and a rush of lust. "How about you show me?"

Wash dipped his head and began to adore her all over again, his hands, lips, eyes, his very heart all wrapped up in every touch and every look. Just as he was losing himself in the foreplay he jerked back, his wife pushing herself upright, as a loud hammering on the hatch of their bunk killed the moment. Zoe jumped out of bed, shrugged quickly into a robe and climbed the ladder, throwing the hatch open to see what the *guai* had gone wrong now. Behind her, Wash hurriedly pulled on a pair of pants and grabbed a shirt. His eyes widened and his heart sank as he poked his head out of the hatch. River. The girl was a complete mess, her eyes wild and panic stricken, her nightdress clammy and sticking to her thin body, her hands waving independently of each other in erratic aborted gestures as if they knew what they wanted to convey but had lost all language skills.

Zoe was trying to calm the girl down, hushing her and reaching out to touch her arm. Wash knew what that was about. When River was like this any attempt to comfort and reassure could overwhelm the girl which was why Zoe didn't try to hug her. Only once she had calmed down enough to be cognisant of what was going on would she accept more. The only one that didn't seem to apply to was Simon but he wasn't here. Right now less really was more and probably all the poor girl could handle. Though Wash could see she wasn't even managing to do that. It filled him with sorrow. He liked River, even when she was scary there was a sweetness about her, a tenderness and child-like mischief at her core that spoke to him of a kindred spirit. Now she was more like a terrified animal that didn't know where to run only on some level she did know because she had come to Zoe.

"River, you have to calm down, *dong ma*? I can't help you if I don't know what's wrong."

"Too much, too much, too much! Sneaky, stealthy, didn't see it. Why didn't I see it?"

Zoe frowned. What was she talking about? "You couldn't know what Badger was gonna do, little one."

She shook her head, the matted strands flying around her face in frustration. "No, *ni bu dong*."

"Then explain it to me, River."

The girl paused and for a moment Wash thought she was regaining a measure of control but it was an illusion. River was struggling for words, then the breath to carry them from her mouth to their ears. What in the nine hells had happened? Rivers hands twisted and waved towards her head, a disjointed ballet devoid of her usual grace.

"It's inside, can't get it out. I have to get it OUT!"

Zoe and Wash exchanged worried glances as River's voice rose into a pleading wail. This was even worse than they thought. Last time River thought something was in her brain she had tried to cut it out with one of Simon's scalpels. The only comfort was that this time she had come running for help first. It was still scary but there was less blood.

"Need Simon." She whimpered, letting her waif like body fold in on itself until she was sitting small and dejected on the deckplates at their feet. A puppet whose strings had been cut. Wash wanted to help but didn't have a clue where to start or what had set River off. Zoe knelt beside the girl, voice soft and low, calmly telling her that they would find out together. Simon had left some smoothers in the infirmary in case his sister had an episode while he was gone but Zoe was reluctant use them. Although she could not explain why, this felt different.

* * * * *

It was hard, so hard for Paul to put any faith in the crazy little killer but what choice did he have? He wasn't in any shape to run and instinct told him if he did he would change from tentative friend and ally to prey. It would likely trigger Natalie back into killing mode with himself top of the menu. Inwardly he sighed. He was tired, more than weary, and in need of medical attention but Natalie was even worse off that he was. She needed the kind of help that was so specialised only their enemy had the expertise and if they had to go to them then they really had lost. No. There must be another way. And it was up to him to find it. The problem was, Natalie wasn't listening.

"We can find them, hunt them down..."

She was chanting, the cadence of her voice a sing song variation of crazy that should never be put to music but at least her knife was back in its' sheath and he had persuaded her to wash the blood off her face and hands at the first stream they had come to. He could do nothing about the blood stained rags she was wearing.

"*Bu qu*, they're like you. We don't want to hurt anybody, *ni dongle ma*?"

Natalie paused, her head swaying from side to side, her eyes wide and staring as if seeing something he could not. Then her look sharpened, her features became more human again as if the intelligence in her head was regaining a little control. Anything that pushed back the madness for even a little while was a cause for hope. "Have to look, to find. One left, the other wasn't finished. Took another path."

He had no idea what she was rambling on about but a suspicion was beginning to form. "Natalie, do you know the name? The one you seek, what is the name?"

"Know enough but the scent is gone. Far, far away so we must hurry."

"The name?" He repeated a little more insistently, but carefully, gently, not wanting to push too far and lose the small amount of ground he had made with her.

"A trick."

Uh oh. Not the reaction he was hoping for. "No, no trick Natalie. I just don't know who you're talkin' about."

She blinked as if just discovering he was there. That was creepy. She studied him for a moment, could see he was injured but could still walk. "I'm supposed to kill you. Rip the flesh from your body so you die screamin'."

This was so not good but Paul couldn't speak, shock stealing through him and taking away his voice. They were some distance from the compound now though it was still in sight along with the electified fencing and security cameras Natalie had somehow circumvented to engineer their escape. A miracle in itself or was it? The alarm should have been raised by now and the whole place swarming with armed men but all was silent. Unnaturally so. His heart was pounding faster and faster. They had to get away while it was still an option. And as crazy as Natalie was he couldn't leave her behind. Monster or not, she was a victim too.

"We have to go, Natalie."

It seemed that his constant use of her name was helping to ground her. To keep the monster at bay. With a sharp nod she turned and picked up speed and Paul followed.

* * * * *

Although it was hard to tell day or night inside the cavern complex Simon judged it must be about mid-day. After the fun little conversation with Curtis the Captain had been unusually quiet. At first Simon didn't notice, too busy setting broken bones and sewing up gashes and other injuries some of which were going septic. Fortunately they had enough medical supplies with them to treat a small army. Then there were those with a fever, a few with various illnesses but only one that needed to be kept away from everyone else. While most folk from border worlds had built up a natural immunity to measles Simon didn't want to take any chances.

He finally got back to the Captain almost twenty four hours after they had arrived and he would have to leave him again soon. But not until they had eaten and had time to speak. That was when the silence told him all was not well. "Mal? Are you alright?"

The Captain blinked at him, his lips set in a grim little line that looked as if it had never learnt to smile yet Simon had known it quirk up in laughter. Had seen it smile a time or two.

"Are you in pain? Mal, say something, you're beginning to worry me."

A tiny sigh escaped the closed lips then something in the Captain relaxed. Just a little. "Simon, we ain't safe here, *dong ma*?"

"What do you mean? Has something happened?"

Mal didn't know how to convey the deep unsettling feeling in his gut that they needed to leave. But how to do that and find a place that was not only safe but defensible until Serenity returned he didn't know. Also, drawing attention to that realisation would be as good as painting a gorram target on their backs. All this flashed through the Captain's mind at the speed of light. Seeing Simon's brow furrowed in concern he flashed him a smile. So wide and bright it could only be false. "Not nothin' *cuode*, just a little bit of pain is all."

The mention of something physical that he could treat immediately side tracked the good doctor, a slight flush accompanying the sorry on his sensitive face for not having checked on the Captain sooner. "*Duibuqi* Mal, I didn't mean to be gone so long but they have so many here who are sick and..."

"Hey, hey, not complainin', *dong ma*? Know you got your hands full an' it's a good thing you're doin'."

Simon froze at the compliment and looked at him. "It is?"

The smile this time was smaller but genuine. "It surely is. All that fussin' is what makes you a good doc, Simon."

A suspicious look flitted across Simon's face so quickly that had the Captain not been looking right at him he would have missed it. Boy was growing up and that was a fact. It made something inexplicable in the Captain's heart lighten, just a mite. Mayhap this wouldn't be the impending disaster he was thinking it would be. But right about then, that very moment in fact, was when the other gorram shoe dropped.

* * * * *

"What's wrong with her?" The big man growled.

"Jayne, you ain't helpin'." Zoe responded. Her voice full of warning that the next words out of his mouth had better pass through what passed as his brain first.

They were all gathered in the commons room, Jayne dragging Badger along at the first mate's grim insistence. Inara and Kaylee had immediately gone to River, soothing words and hands speaking of the love and affection so seldom put into words. But it was there and River knew and somehow it helped.

Mistress Barbette tried to get close to her son but the mercenary kept shooting a glare in her direction and Badger would not meet her eyes. It was as if he was ashamed. Frowning she was sure she could detect something else in his demeanour, something that took all the fight out of him and that was just wrong on so many levels. It took her a moment before she realised Zoe was speaking again. This time her words drew the House Mother's full attention.

"*Shenme*? You think this is Stephen's fault?" The anger was seeping through the words as if every vowel was porous. Zoe didn't back down and even the Shepherd raised no objection. Book was watching Badger, the way his head was hanging down, eyes averted, shoulders slumped. It was so unlike the little man and who knew what that device had done to him? Had anyone even considered the man might be suffering, in pain? As the notion struck him Badger raised his head and looked at the Preacher. His eyes were bloodshot as they locked on his.

"The only pain that thing will bring will be to everyone one of you, *dong ma*?"

All talk stopped, every eye now fixed on Badger. Mistress Barbette managed to get close to her son. "Stephen, what do you mean?"

Her turned to her, a laugh on his lips so far from funny that it chilled her. "That's what it does, see? Different settin's or so I imagine. Didn't know I'd switched the gorram thing on but it knows me now."

Wash looked disconcerted. Surely Badger hadn't said what he thought he'd said? "Knows you?"

"*Qu*. It always leaves 'one' witness."

A baffled look was on all their faces now. Oh, that was so funny. Hi-larious in fact. Kaylee scrunched up her face, her concern for River diverted by the slimey little king pin's disturbing words. Be just like Badger to look for some advantage even now. "You're lyin', you don't know what it can do any more'n we do."

His laugh was a staccato bark. Zoe slid her right hand to rest on her mare's leg, comfitted to see that Jayne was also taking a ready to fire stance. Shepherd Book didn't like the way this conversation was going. "Suppose you tell us what it is we don't know?"

The little man looked at the Preacher then glanced around at the rest of them, his look lingering just a mite on his mother's face. "Seein's as it won't be long 'til you all find out, don't suppose it matters now. That control device is meant to protect what's hidden inside, see? Them as tampers with it gets a nasty shock."

"Like you did?" Kaylee pointed to his face, remembering the blood that had been trickling from his nose, face and eyes when they found him - screaming.

He shook his head, just a tiny motion. "Nah, that was a warnin'. Soon as I dropped it the sound faded. Not that I could hear anythin'." He raised a hand and twirled it by his head. "Noise was all inside, takin' me brain apart you could say. Just like it's gonna do to each of you."

Zoe was watching him like a hawk. Inara could feel River shudder and pulled her closer, Kaylee squeezing her friend's hand to try and reassure her. Zoe was tempted just to draw her gun and shoot him but it seemed Badger knew more than he had been telling them. "If we die so do you."

His laughter was longer, harder, more broken than before. It was all manner of wrong. "You just don't get it do you?" When no one answered Badger turned slowly then stopped and pointed at a trembling River. She seemed almost to shrink away from him. "Ask the crazy one, she knows! Reader, ain't she? Fat lot of good that'll do any of you now."

"Stephen, *gou le*!"

He spun and glared at his mother. "You don't get to tell me nothin', *dong ma*? Think you're a mother? Call me *erzi* on'y it don't make it so. Left me, abandoned with gorram strangers in that filthy rat-trap of a hole on Dayton Colony."

Before his mother could respond Zoe stepped between them, the grim look on her face keeping the others from saying anything. "What did you mean, we're all gonna die?" When he hesitated Zoe drew her gun, ignoring the little sharp gasp from Kaylee. "I ain't worried about blowin' your gorram brains out if you don't answer me."

Badger was shaking his head with mock sorrow, the amusement in his voice so wrong that she wanted to hit him. "Oh, this is priceless. You just don't get it. All you thinkin' you're so gorram clever, runnin' an' hidin' from the ruttin' Alliance. Stealin' stuff what you got no clue about then thinkin' to get clean away."

A hand shot out and grabbed Badger by the collar, Zoe's face now inches from the little man's, her gun hand itching to pull the trigger at point blank range. "Explain, now!"

"Ask her!"

All eyes shifted to follow his hand. River had curled in on herself, a miserable little huddle. Inara and Kaylee knelt either side of her and tried to offer what comfort they could.

"See what's happenin'? That'll be you - each an' ev'ry one."

Shepherd Book took a moment to take in what Badger had just said, a look of horror on his face. "Are you sayin' that device is causing what's happening to River?"

He nodded. "Smart man, joined the dots. Won't save you."

Before anyone could stop him, Jayne bulldozed Mistress Barbette and Zoe out of the way, his own meaty hands wrapping around the little man's neck. So furious he could hardly speak, Jayne lifted Badger off his feet and shook him like a racoon with a snake. "You're gonna tell us how to turn it off or I'll squeeze the ruttin' life out of you!"

"Jayne!"

Jayne ignored the cry from Kaylee but no one made a move to drag him off Badger. The little man's face was reddening, eyes widening as breath grew scarce, yet oddly enough he didn't look scared. If anything he was looking calmer than the rest of them. "Do it."

The mercenary paused. The red haze of anger punctuated by those two unexpected words. His fingers stopped squeezed but they didn't let the little man go either. "*Shenme*?"

Badger snarled now, hoping to provoke the man with his last decent breath. "Do it, finish it. *Qing*?"

Puzzled, Jayne loosened his grip. "You wanna die?"

He was coughing now, his mother reaching out a hand to him but Badger dodged her touch. He looked smaller somehow, desperate and dismal. "Should'a killed me when you had the chance."

"Still might."

Now Zoe motioned to Jayne to step aside. "Badger, we may not be friends but we ain't your enemy. Even with everythin' you've done, we might be mad at you but no need for us to be on opposite sides. You got information about what's goin' on we need to know it, *dong ma*? Simple as that."

Badger raised a shaky hand and rubbed his neck. He nodded slowly, manner subdued. "You're right. Always was a smart lady." He paused to get his breath back. "That thing is evil, but while it was attackin' me I kind'a got a glimpse at what it was doin'. It was protectin' the information, see? Programmed to take out anyone what meddles with it."

"You said we're all gonna die."

"Yeah, be messy. Like what was happenin' to me but it won't stop 'til yer brains leak outta your ears."

"How come that hasn't happened to you?" Asked Wash. Jayne snorted. "He ain't got no brains."

"Jayne." The single word from Zoe soured his lips but Jayne didn't say anything else.

On the floor River's whimpers trailed off then she lifted her head and stared straight at Badger. "You have to get rid of it, *mashang*! They're coming, they're coming, so close now. Not much time."

Even with all their lives presumably in the balance Zoe was reluctant to just ditch the device into the atmo. Surely whoever was coming would simply retrieve it, then what? It could be used against other unsuspecting people. The part of her brain developed for self preservation had a word to say on that: people not us. Sometimes you couldn't argue with logic.

"Okay, we get rid of it but not just dumpin' it into the atmo. Wash?"

"Yes, *bao bei*?"

"Find us the nearest sun. Gonna send this devil's toy back to its' maker."

As Wash ran to do just that the proximity alert sounded. Kaylee looked up in shock, her heart a raggedy mess of panic. Zoe caught the look in her eye and wouldn't let the mechanic fall apart.

"Need you in the engine room, Kaylee."

She nodded numbly, gave River's hand a final squeeze then hurried out of the room. Mistress Barbette couldn't believe how quickly everything was falling apart. "If I can get a message to the Minister..."

Zoe cut her off, not caring if she upset the woman's sensibilities. "Not happenin'. For all we know he may be a part of this gorram mess."

Her face darkened. "That's impossible!"

"Maybe so, maybe not. Not got time to argue, you don't like it you know where the airlock is. Just got time to join that other piece of *fei hua* an' you can take your back stabbin' son with you."

Behind her, Jayne was chortling. One look from Zoe silenced him again. Gorramit, woman didn't let him have no fun.

"Zoe!" Wash's voice came loud and clear over the com. "You need to get up here!"

In the silence that followed in the first mate's wake, those left stared at each other. Not a one of them knowing what to say or do. A whimper from River reminded them that there was someone still needing their help and protection. Inara got the girl to her feet and settled her into a chair, taking the seat next to her. Jayne eyed the others for a moment. "What we gonna do?"

Book didn't want to alarm them but if this went the way it looked like going they would need to have more than their wits about them. "I suggest we get what weapons we have close to hand."

Mistress Barbette frowned. "Are you expecting a shoot out, Shepherd?"

Book's expression was grim. "*Bu qu*. If what Zoe has planned doesn't work we'll either be blown out of the sky or boarded. I'm leaning towards being boarded."

For the first time in what felt like forever, Inara spoke. "You think it's come to that?"

"Oh, I think we're beyond that."

Jayne grunted and began walking to the door. "I'll be in my bunk."

"Jayne!"

The big man paused in the doorway. "Gotta get Vera."

Mistress Barbette looked from drawn face to drawn face then moved closer to her son. This time Badger didn't shy away. He felt wrung out and so weary all his bones ached with it. His head was still ringing and if he moved too quickly it felt like the slush that was his brain was sliding from one end of his cranium to the other. Only way to keep the sick feeling from coming out of his mouth was to stay still, close his eyes and wait for Arma-ruttin-geddon.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*shifu* = boss *zhangfu* = husband *bao bei* = precious/treasure *guai* = devil/ghost *ni bu dong* = you don't understand *bu qu* = no (lit. no go) *ni dongle ma* = do you understand? *dong ma* = understand? *cuode* = wrong *duibuqi* = sorry *shenme* = what *qu* = yes (lit. go) *gou le* = enough *erzi* = son *qing* = please *mashang* = at once/on the double/immediately *fei hua* = garbage/nonsense

COMMENTS

Friday, December 19, 2008 10:17 AM

ANGELLEMARCS


Okay, just have to say this right now...damn woman, you write Badger so well. I wanted to join on Jayne's bandwagon and help him squeeze the life out of that sneaky good for nuttin'. River was especially interesting in this. I hope the crew can help River get better and Jayne can get Vera all dressed up!! Can't wait for more!!

Sunday, December 21, 2008 6:31 PM

SLUMMING


Excellent description of River's mental state! Well done, as always! :)


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