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AMDOBELL

HANDFUL OF STARS: 19. "Heroes and Handicaps"
Saturday, January 29, 2011

"Monty decides to go along with Ritchie's plan. Zoe and Book discover what a truly scary character Petrie is. Meanwhile Simon feels guilty and one man comes to his senses."


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2115    RATING: 10    SERIES: FIREFLY

TITLE: "HEROES AND HANDICAPS" AUTHOR: Alison M. DOBELL FANDOM: "FIREFLY" PAIRING: None. RATING: PG-13. STATUS: Sequel to "DEVIL'S DEN". ARCHIVE: Yes. Just let me know where. FEEDBACK: Welcomed. EMAIL: AlisonMDobell@aol.com WEBSITE: None. All Firefly stories archived at Fireflyfans.net

SUMMARY: "Monty decides to go along with Richie's plan. Zoe and Book discover what an truly scary character Petrie is. Meanwhile Simon feels guilty and one man comes to his senses." 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.

"HEROES AND HANDICAPS"

"Firefly" story

Written by Alison M. DOBELL

* * * * *

"What're you doin'?"

Ritchie didn't pause, his hands working quickly. Deft fingers completing the circuit. "*Baoxian*."

Monty raised an eyebrow and looked round at his small but loyal crew. The five of them turned to stare at Ritchie Thomas. What the good gorram did they need with insurance? Right now Ritchie looked less like a former Sheriff and more like a burglar except he wasn't trying to break into Monty's ship, he was rigging it to stop anyone else doing so.

"Ritchie, we're wastin' time."

"*Fang xin*, you said they'd locked you on board your ship, *dui*?"

Monty nodded. "So?"

"I'm doin' the same."

"Case you ain't noticed we aren't on the ship."

Ritchie finished and stood up, dusting his dirty hands off on his trousers. There was a little grim look of satisfaction on his face. "Which means they'll see it all fastened up like a bank vault an' figured you an' your crew are still inside. It should also stop anyone getting on board while we're gone."

"I could leave Denny with the ship. Would make sense to have my pilot on stand-by."

"For a ship that can't fly?" At Monty's hurt look, Ritchie hurried to smooth over his hasty words. "Look, we're makin' the ship look as harmless as possible. If they do come back they'll be smug thinkin' they still have the upper hand. Won't expect us to be outside so they won't go lookin' for us, *dong ma*?"

Monty reluctantly agreed, it wasn't a bad idea but then he had another thought. "How are we gonna get in again?"

A smile blossomed briefly on Ritchie Thomas's face. "That's what this here charge is for. I have the remote. When we come back, once it's safe to do so, I blow this little charge an' it will release the lock on the ship."

Denny tilted his head to look at Ritchie's handiwork. "What's to stop them doin' the same?"

As a group they drifted quickly away from the ship and soon lost themselves in the shrubs, trees and shadows. Their voices a soft low murmur, pitched not to carry. "They won't be expectin' it so none of 'em'll think of bringing any tech with 'em."

"You hope." Grumbled Monty quietly, his voice deep and dark. Secretly though he was impressed with Ritchie's quick thinking. Might be the man was more useful than he gave him credit for, not that he had any intention of telling him. He'd wait to see how this little adventure turned out first.

* * * * *

His head hurt. Fact was, every part of his body seemed to be in distress and yet the longer he lay awake the stronger his will became. The images that plagued him no longer brought the same searing pain, the same heartache and regret. He could control the speed of them now, was able to trawl through them or seek particular memories until now hidden from him by his mind's manipulation and his body's corruption. Slowly, and piece by piece, he re-built his lost past and as he did so an anger burned in him that would have reduced Hell and all its' minions to ash.

* * * * *

Zoe came to first, not that there was any joy in that. A nightmare scenario slowly coalesced into a vision more befitting Dante's Inferno. Her first instinct was to move, to get off that ruttin' table, but her limbs would not obey her. Panic began to build but she ruthlessly squashed anything that might impede her ability to think straight. If there was one thing Zoe Washburn was inordinately good at it was compartmentalising, blocking off the things that would distract her from a central purpose, her ability to focus on one thing to the exclusion of all else at times frightening in its' intensity. It was one of the many things that made her Malcolm Reynolds' perfect second in command. Right now she needed information almost as much as the air in her lungs. Without turning her head she took note of her surroundings, listing in her head what she could see, hear, taste, touch and smell. What she saw was limited, the ceiling above her oddly plated with shiny chrome but not a squared off ceiling. This one was curved as if it had to follow contours that were not man made. It was her first clue.

The only sounds she could pick up were the soft sussurations of some machine. No clock ticking, no shuffle of slippered feet or those unshod. For a minute or so she kept her concentration on whatever she could glean by listening as hard as she could. It offered up no further information and left her frustrated. Zoe quickly quelled the frustration as a distraction she could not afford. Next, taste. Metallic, that was to be expected. Cordite. A bit of a surprise but then her memory scrolled back to the very recent past and their reception as the crack in the stone had opened before them. A magician's trick but no less effective for momentarily confusing them enough for the enemy to gain the upper hand. There were other smells too, almost antiseptic but not. Drugs? Chemicals? She could smell sweat, not yet stale so likely it was her own. Where were the others?

Being unable to move it took a while to realise she was also bound. Though not surprised she was disturbed that it had taken her so many minutes to figure that out. So. Her senses had been affected, her body numb to the table beneath her yet slowly aware of her weight resting flat and immobile on 'something' hence the leap of logic to either a table or some kind of bed. The hard flat functionality of the piece of equipment made her opt for a table, most likely for operations which led her mind down the kind of pathway where madness lay. Zoe moved on.

What she had assumed to be some kind of chemical odour was doubtless correct. It had probably been released into the white mist or maybehaps that was a by-product of whatever weapon had been discharged against them. Had it been aimed or part of a self defence mechanism? But no, they had not even begun to attack the entryway. It had opened on their approach. Interesting. So it was either automated or directed. River had said Petrie had eyes everywhere. Obviously not all of those cameras had been broken. It was just their luck that the most important one of all still worked.

* * * * *

At first Simon was content to leave Inara to sit beside the Captain's bedside but after the first couple of hours the guilt ate away at him. He was Malcolm Reynold's doctor and should not have allowed River to drug the man, especially as he had given the Captain his word that he could rest without fear of being medicated. It did not matter to Simon that he had not known what his sister was going to do. In solving one problem, she had left him to face another. When Mal woke up there was only one person he would blame.

River had said the Captain would be out for at least five hours. That should leave him plenty of time to work out how to handle what was likely to be an ugly confrontation. He should at least prepare Inara and make sure the Companion would not face the brunt of the man's displeasure. Mind made up Simon walked briskly to the infirmary and had just set foot across the sill when Malcolm Reynolds turned his head and locked bright blue eyes on him. Stunned, Simon froze and inwardly cursed his sister. She had said five hours!

"Doc, *wode hao*. No need to fuss."

The Captains' voice was a mite slurred but stubborn man that he was, his eyes seemed pretty clear. Gorramit, what did River give him? It should not have worn off this quickly. His sister might not be a doctor but she was a genius. "Captain, how do you feel?"

Instead of answering, the Captain's eyes narrowed slightly like a shark scenting blood. "*Shenme shi*?"

*Tian Yesu*, why did he have to have a face that gave everything away? River could stare you straight in the eye and lie with the best of them, better in fact. Simon had never mastered the art. "*Yiwusouyou*, unless you aren't telling me the truth about feeling good."

He got the stink eye and noticed Inara try to hide a smile. Mal opened his mouth and to speak and a yawn popped out. He snapped his mouth shut in surprise then frowned at Simon Tam. "You drug me?"

This, at least, Simon could deny with a clear conscience. "No, I did not!" The injection of a little righteous indignation seemed to satisfy the Captain.

"Huh. Must'a been more tired than I thought."

Inara smiled down at him. "After everything you've been through, Mal, I'm surprised you aren't still sleeping."

"How long I been asleep?"

"Not long," Simon assured "but seeing as you're awake now I need to check you over."

The Captain rolled his eyes and went to sit up but felt his head swim a bit. He froze halfway and slowly lay back down. This time it was Simon who frowned, quick steps closing the distance between them in the blink of an eye. In full doctor mode, nothing else pinged his radar. Inara cast him a worried glance then tried to hide her concern when Mal turned towards her. Inara used her training to project calm.

"Mal, let Simon examine you."

"Seems all I been doin' for days."

Her hand on his kept the Captain from launching into a bitter tirade. Besides, his head was aching fit to bust and he wasn't really up to antagonising the one person most able to help the pain go away. Inara started to get up as Simon shone a penlight in Mal's eye eliciting a groan and an attempt to flinch out of the way. "You don't have to go Inara, in fact I think it might help if you stay."

"You plannin' on overpowerin' me?"

Simon was alarmed by how weak the Captain sounded. Only seconds before he had seemed like his old self. More tests followed with the Captain hardly speaking. It was setting a panic in Simon that something major was wrong, something he had seemingly overlooked. Inara quickly picked up on Simon's unease, her eyes asking what her lips would not. Even though Mals' eyes were closed she knew he was listening. It would not help to feed the man's paranoia.

"It's just your body telling you to rest, Captain."

Mal's eyes opened a crack behind sluggish lids. "On'y just woke up..."

A thought occurred to the doctor as he continued checking him. "What were you thinking about?"

It took several long seconds before Mal answered. He was clearly fighting to keep his eyes open. "*Shenme*?"

Simon leaned over him, disturbed by the Captain's laboured breathing. "When you started to feel tired again just now, what were you thinking?"

The eyelids fluttered like a flag of surrender but not before Simon saw the Captain give him a suspicious look before they closed again. "Was thinkin' you gorram drugged me...."

His breath caught and for a second Simon froze but the Captain was out for the count. Inara's eyes widened. "Is he alright?"

"Just let me..." Simon finished his exam and sat back, a look on his face that said he woud throttle his sister. Seeing Inara's puzzled expression he held up the hand she could not see from the other side of Mal's infirmary bed. It was an IV line.

Inara opened her mouth but Simon motioned for her to be silent. Making one last check to be sure everything was indeed in order, Simon rose and beckoned for Inara to follow him. He closed the door of the infirmary behind him.

"It seems my sister anticipated the Captain might wake early so rigged up an IV."

"Then Mal isn't having a relapse?"

The sudden laugh startled her but there was more relief than humour in it. "*Bu qu*. Our *wangu shenjingbing* Captain is just going to have the longest period of uninterrupted sleep in his life."

"It won't harm him?"

Simon raised his eyebrows, a smile tweaking at his lips now he knew that his most frequent patient was not in any danger. "If we live through the next few hours Malcolm Reynolds will be in better shape than we are."

* * * * *

The room was approximately ten foot square with rough hewn walls and no decoration. Even though there was no bed or bench it was obviously some kind of cell. His head still throbbing, Shepherd Derial Book did not like what he was seeing. Book began to pace then stopped himself, his mind going through all manner of scenarios as he tried to piece together what had happened after the explosion. Obviously he had survived but what of the others? Were they injured, dead? In cells like this one? He slowly scanned the small space but could see no sign of any monitoring equipment. Apart from himself the cell was empty.

He glanced at the heavy iron worked door and the lack of a lock or handle on his side. There was a small grate at eye level but the viewing plate on the other side was covering it so he could not see out. With a sigh he turned away from the door and took another closer look at his confinement. As he did so the unmistakable sound of bolts being drawn back had him spinning round again. The door opened with barely a creak, a big bear of a man in what looked like hospital scrubs was staring at him but it was the figure standing just behind his left shoulder that caught and held Book's eye. Even without an introduction Book would have known him anywhere. The Captains' description brought the Devil's closest earthy cousin to life.

Lincoln James Petrie gave the scientist a curt nod and the man stepped aside just enough to allow Petrie to enter the cell. He did not however shut the door. While Book watched Petrie warily, part of his mind was calculating his chances of making a break for it. Foolish, obviously, but so very tempting given the treatment the Captain had endured at this man's hands.

"Are you familiar with the works of Shan Yu?"

The Shepherd did not even blink in surprise. "Yes."

There was a flash of teeth in what could have been a grin, hard to tell when half of Petrie's face was at war with the other half. Perhaps it was genetic? "How does your God feel about that?"

"If you are looking for absolution you have come to the wrong man."

"Are you not a man of the cloth?"

"And are you not an evil, immoral torturer?"

"Ah!" Petrie paused and something flickered in his eyes. Something dark and unwholesome. It made the hairs on the back of Book's neck stand on end. "You have been speaking to Malcolm Reynolds."

Book fell silent. Petrie watched him for a moment.

"What is a holy man doing on Malcolm Reynolds's ship?"

"I am a Preacher out of Southdown Abbey not a holy man."

Petrie raised the long lost remnants of eyebrows. "You have sinned?"

"We are all sinners in this mortal life."

"What is 'your' sin?"

"I would rather ask what I am doing here."

"You are the one who came to me, why are you here? Is this some kind of misguided revenge? Your Captain was destined to die, I was merely the means to that end."

"There was no reason for you to take him. He had done nothing to you."

"You said you were familiar with the works of Shan Yu?" Petrie waited for Book to nod. "Then," he whispered softly "you know what comes next."

* * * * *

Old man Ellis loved many things but after the death of his wife too many years ago to count he had invested all his considerable energy upon the Yard. What folks unkindly called scrap he referred to as 'missing pieces' and he was the master at putting all those broken jigsaws together. Kaylee Frye had recognised him for who he was, the genius mechanic instantly recognising a kindred spirit. How the mentally challenged Sheriff had come to a similar conclusion was kind of beyond the old man.

"What in the nine hells are ya doin' here, Sheriff?"

Ellis said nothing about the little posse Ritchie had with him, his expert eye pegging the big man as the Captain of that scruffy Kingfisher. The others must seemingly be the crew but Ellis kept an open, if wary, mind. Didn't pay to assume anything. Ritchie didn't smile just flapped aside his jacket then let it fall back in place.

"Not Sheriff today."

That stumped Ellis more than the sun freezing. "*Shenme shi*?"

"Best we have this conversation inside, *dong ma*?"

Don Ellis didn't budge an inch, if anything his expression set harder than concrete. "My place, my rules. Either spit it out or leave, I ain't much carin' which."

Ritchie sighed but didn't appeal to Monty to plead his cause which surprised Ellis. Maybe the man was growing a backbone. "You know that money man holed up in the hills?"

They weren't hills and both men knew it. The granite range in which Lincoln James Petrie hid his dubious empire was like a massive mound of rounded pebbles strung out over several miles. No soil, no water, and pretty much nothing else living there but scorpions and insects. Even birds gave the place a wide berth which to Ellis spoke volumes. But then he wasn't about to think Ritchie's words any sign that he should trust him, after all he'd seen the man go out to Petries' place in that shiny high tech mule. No. Whatever the man was up to wouldn't be as obvious as he was projecting.

"Not as well as you do."

Ritchie Thomas stiffened. Could feel Monty and his men drilling cold hard looks into the back of his head. He had not expected Ellis to know of his association with the murderous pyschopath. Could make recruiting his help a whole lot harder. "Things are seldom what they seem." Ritchie paused, a quick inward debate telling him there was only one way to play this.

"What you don't know is what he did to my *qizi*."

The old man's eyes fastened hard on Ritchie's face. He had met Audrey Thomas a few times and liked her. Couldn't for the life of him figure what she was doing with a man so far down the food chain but maybehaps he was the one who had been reading that situation wrong. Without a word Ellis stepped back and opened the door to his house wide. Ritchie gave him a solemn nod then stepped inside, Monty and his crew following. Once inside Ellis shut and bolted the door fast. Monty glared at him but the old man just shrugged then gave a small bitter smile. Ah. His house, his rules.

"Ya got my attention, Ritchie. Now I want the whole story then ya can tell me what ya want, *gongping*?"

Reluctantly Ritchie nodded. They followed the old man into his kitchen and at a wave of his hand found seats around the old battered table. Ellis didn't sit until he had filled a kettle and put it on his range, the hiss of gas as it ignited the only sound until he was seated. Ritchie leaned forward and told their wary host everything that had happened. As the whole sorry tale unfolded Ellis held his heart contract in sympathy, never in a million years could he have envisioned Ritchie's wife meeting such a violent and cruel end. Lincoln James Petrie really was a monster but what did any of that have to do with him?

"*Wode duibuqi* about Audrey."

Ritchie nodded, unable to speak. Ellis watched him for a moment, a little stunned by some of the graphic nature of the Sheriff's story but it would explain the change in the man only, how much of his story could he trust? Seeing the doubt starting to creep into Ellis's face Ritchie sighed. He had hoped to be taken at his word but it seemed in this 'verse that currency was in short supply. Drawing out the little wooden box he placed it carefully on the table in front of Ellis. The puzzled look on the old man's face would not last long. Quickly he unlocked the box then paused. "What you're about to see ain't pretty, Don. You knew my wife, happen you'll recognise what you see but you should brace yourself."

Ellis swallowed then nodded. Ritchie flicked up the lid and Ellis automatically leant forward to peer into the box, what peered back at him shook him to the core. "*Tian Yesu*!"

Ritchie shut the lid down and locked it, his voice so quiet yet easily heard in the silence that bound the room and those inside it. "I thought he was helpin' us, Don. Honest to *Shangdi*. Said Audrey had a cancer, real rare an' untreatable on'ly he was developin' a cure. I trusted him, too full of panic at the thought of losin' her." He broke off as emotion choked off his words, took a moment to clear his throat and steady himself a mite. "Then I got impatient, it was takin' too long an' I had no word or such so I contacted him. Wanted to find out what was goin' on. That's when he sent a mule for me, I rushed over on'y to be told she had died. That Petrie had tried everythin' to save her but it wasn't enough, the cancer was too far gone. I can't believe I actually thanked that *tamade hundan*, still believin' him to be a good an' honourable man." Ritchie huffed angrily before continuing. "That was when he handed me the gorram box, told me to keep it as a momento. Said it was precious to him but that I had the greater need. Made me promise not to open it 'til I got home."

The silence that fell was so total that a clock ticking in the hall sounded like hammer strokes. Even though Monty had already heard the story it tore him up inside hearing it a second time. Looking at Don Ellis's paper white face he knew the old man was trying to work through his own deep shock. Slowly his face began to reacquire colour, anger lending animation where shock had previously robbed him of it. "An' ya come to me, *weishenme*? I ain't no gunman."

"Not askin' for guns. Fact is Petrie had some of his men mess with Monty's engine on the Kingfisher. They sealed the door to the ship locking him an' his crew inside until Mal's crew cut 'em out."

"What ya wantin' from me?"

Ritchie glanced at Monty and nodded. The big man described the mess inside the engine. Some kind of gunk sprayed inside which stopped it from working. He told Ellis that Kaylee had said it was chemical based and her brother should be able to analyse it and make a counteragent to dissolve it so they could clean the engine out and get flying again.

"That was before Mal an' his crew had more problems. Petrie grabbed Mal, tortured him an' stuck some high tech stuff in his gorram head then let him go. When his crew found him he was a mess but luckily their doc is real shiny."

"So Malcolm Reynolds is okay?"

Monty sucked in a breath. "*Wo bu zhidao*. Once they got him back the ship took off, haven't seen or heard a thing from 'em since. Word is that whatever Petrie did to Mal killed him."

Now it was Ritchie's turn to look shocked. "*Shenme*? Mal's dead?"

"Heart stopped an' everythin'."

Slowly Ritchie nodded. "That would explain it then."

Monty's head snapped round. "Explain what?"

"I been seein' Petrie's men skulkin' around all over the place. They been tryin' to be subtle, splittin' them up into little groups then spreadin' out but it made all manner of alarms go off in my head. Looked like they were searchin' for somethin'."

The old man had a stirring suspicion. "What was that?"

"You have to understand that Petrie makes the word rich an understatement an' he's filled that hell hole of his with the kind of technology that the Alliance would give their eye teeth for. He's got scientists an' mercenaries a-plenty. When I went over there it was decked out with all these theatres, operating rooms an' such." He paused to swallow back the bile rising up in his throat and awkwardly fingered the now locked box, torn between utter revulsion and the inability to let go of the last piece of Audrey he had. "He said this was precious to him." Ritchie looked up with tears in his eyes. "What kind of *fafeng hundan* finds an eye precious like it was some gorram keepsake? That got me thinkin'. I'm bettin' he's got bits an' pieces of folk he's tortured in that damned place."

"Trophies." Murmured Ellis darkly. Every eye turned to him. "Ya think he took somethin' from Mal?"

Ritchie shrugged. "No idea, Don. He let Mal go after torturin' him so I reckon he did somethin'. Don't think he expected Mal to die."

Denny had been listening in quiet horror but could not stay silent any longer. "If he's dead then why is that *chusheng xia-jiao de xiang huo* lookin' for him?"

Surprisingly it was Ellis who answered. "My guess is he hadn't finished with him."

Horror heaped on horror. Monty's eyes grew wide, his look sick. "Ya mean...?"

Ellis nodded. "I'm thinkin' he thought he could bring him back to life. Either that or take bits off him to add to his 'collection'." The old man shot Ritchie an apologetic look. "*Duibuqi*."

"*Mei shi*, I think you're right."

The Kingfisher's Captain straightened and stroked his shaggy whiskers. "Then it's a good job Serenity didn't hang around."

The kettle whistled and Ellis rose, quickly and efficiently collecting mugs and coffee grounds to make a drink hot and strong enough to suit their darkening and murderous moods. Once he sat down again his mind was made up, his expression grim. "What can I do to help?"

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*baoxian* = insurance *fang xin* = don't worry (lit. ease your heart) *dui* = correct *dong ma* = understand? *wode ma* = mother of God *shenme shi* = what's the matter? *tian Yesu* = sweet Jesus *yiwusouyou* = nothing *shenme* = what *bu qu* = no (li. no go) *wangu* = stubborn *shenjingbing* = crazy *qizi* = wife *gongping* = fair/just *wode duibuqi* = I'm sorry *Shangdi* = God *tamade hundan* = fucking bastard *weishenme* = why? *wo bu zhidao* = I don't know *fafeng hundan* = mad bastard *chusheng xia-jiao de xiang huo* = animal fucking bastard *duibuqi* = sorry *mei shi = it doesn't matter

COMMENTS

Saturday, January 29, 2011 7:31 PM

ANGELLEMARCS


Okay... not sure I like the sound of the end. Take bits of Mal for his collection. What kind of man is this? Is he even a man? This is getting scary good, Ali! More more more.....

Sunday, January 30, 2011 6:51 AM

AMDOBELL


Thank you for the shiny feedback, Angellemarcs. As for Petrie, he is all manner of twisted and evil. Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"


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