THE DEVIL'S CRADLE: 3. "Stronger Than Steel"
Monday, April 16, 2012

Her heart faltered then a hard painful shudder as if it had been manually kick-started and she coughed and spluttered back into life again.


TITLE: "STRONGER THAN STEEL" SERIES: THE DEVIL'S CRADLE CHAPTER: 3. Sequel to "NOTHING GAINED" FANDOM: "FIREFLY" AUTHOR: Alison M. DOBELL PAIRING: Zoe/Wash RATING: PG-13 SUMMARY: "River continues to share her ingishts with the Captain. Meanwhile, circumstances move apace and more disturbing facts rise to the surface of a very unlovely pond."


A "Firefly" Story

Written by Alison M. DOBELL

* * * * *

"He's clipping their wings, one by one."


"Thinks of himself as a collector, a connoisseur."

"River, you know who this twisted *tamade hundan* is?" She shook her head, sad and sorry for letting him down. "He's broken, damaged, only he doesn't want to get well."

A chill shivered through the Captain as if some remote but befouled evil had reached across the gorram Black and touched him. Just a fleeting barely there sensation but it was enough to scare him more than a mite. His eyes widened. "That him?" He whispered.

River shook her head. "*Bu qu*. He isn't looking for you."

He should have felt relieved, instead he felt guilty. Wasn't right to have such a nasty *hundan* picking on children. Gifted or not they should have their whole gorram lives ahead of them not grow up having to hide and dodge every warped and twisted monster from Blue Sun to Reavers.

"Not your fault."

He wasn't surprised she had plucked the thoughts right out of his head. "I'm the Cap'n."

She leaned closer until it seemed her eyes would swallow him up. "The Captain not God." She said softly.

"There ain't no God. Leastways, none wearin' my colours."

Her smile was a fey thing, full of affection. "Just because you don't believe in Him doesn't mean He's stopped believing in you."

The Captain blinked but when he looked round there was no sign of River Tam. Maybehaps she wasn't the crazy one after all.

* * * * *

He thought he would have more time but when word reached him that a Firefly mid-bulk transport had landed here on Anaeron, Arran Burke could hardly believe his ears. What was it with that stiff necked Captain? Did he have no instincts for self preservation? Hot on the heels of that uncharitable thought was a barely controlled glee. This was going to be easier than he could possibly have imagined.

* * * * *

"Still think this is a mistake, sir."

The Captain was on the bridge watching Wash set down. His second in command looked unhappy and more than a little annoyed but facts were facts and they didn't have the fuel to do a detour to New Holland.

"Not too late to send DeSouza a wave, sir."

"That as may be but we're here now, Zoe. Don't wanna be on the ground longer than it takes to drop off the cargo and get paid, *dong ma*? Me an' Jayne'll take the mule out, soon as we leave the ship you lock up after us then lift off. Don't want anyone to be able to look up an' still see a speck of Serenity's exhaust fumes."

"Sir, they'll know we're here."

His grin unsettled her, knowing the many crazy schemes it tended to herald. This one was no exception. "An' they'll see the ship take off again."

Wash couldn't quite wrap his head around the ad hoc plan let alone imagine it working. "Chances are you'll be followed, Mal."

"Would be surprised if we weren't."

Wash glanced at his wife but she was not looking at him, all her attention on their *shenjingbing* Captain. As if she could bore through his *wangu* brain and force some sense into it. He silently wished her luck.

"Sir, I wish you would reconsider."

"If wishes were horses, Zoe..."

"We'd all be eatin' steak."

They turned to see Jayne in the doorway. The man looked dressed for a one man War. The way the Captain was going he was likely to find it. Jayne noticed her look and glanced down at himself. "*Shenme*?"

Wash looked mildly astonished that the mercenary was able to stand with that much ordinance draped and hanging on his body let alone walk. "I take it this is your attempt at bein' subtle, Jayne?"

Jayne stared at him. "Huh?"

The Captain didn't have time for this. He wanted to be off the ship *mashang*. "You ready, Jayne?"

The big man grunted and clattered out onto the catwalk. Mal took that as an affirmative. He gave Zoe a look. "You know what you have to do."

Zoe nodded back, knowing nothing she said or did would change his mind now that it was set. Didn't mean she had to like it though."Yes, sir."

When they got to the cargo bay the Captain was not surprised to find Shepherd Book waiting, a sniper's rifle in his hands. "Thought you could use another pair of eyes, Captain."

The Captain gave the weapon a meaningful look. "Not that I don't appreciate the offer, Shepherd, but the less people involved the better."

"Oh, we're all involved Captain."

Mal raised his eyebrows at that. Jayne had already climbed aboard the mule and was getting impatient. "We are?"

Book smiled, took a step back and slammed one hand on the big red button to open up the cargo bay doors. "And you could use a little help unloading the cargo."

That at least was true though the Captain had been figuring on getting the buyer's men to help out on that score. Thinking about it Book was right plus it wouldn't do to count on factors he could not control. With a curt nod he jumped up beside Jayne and drove off down the ramp, the Shepherd hitting the button to close up after them before running down the rising ramp to join them at the bottom. As soon as the mule was clear the Captain clicked his hand held transmitter twice. A single click back meant Wash had received and understood. Opening up the throttle Jayne kicked up a fierce cloud of dust as the mule shot away from the docks, Serenity rising up through the cloud of it and disappearing from view by the time the dust cleared. Had the Captain been looking he would have said it almost had a kind of poetry to it. Another set of eyes did watch with dispassionate interest. Noted the three men drive off and the ship take to the air again. A small crease formed between eyes that never crinkled with laughter. As the dark head turned a gold triangular tattoo caught the light then he was gone.

* * * * *

She was near death, had to be, and yet thoughts like chaotic splinters fractured inside the torn landscape of her mind. Was she alone? No, some instinct warned against such a luxury of assumption. An absence of intrusion did not mean the tormentor had gone. He was subtle enough to blend in as and when he chose or be an incongruous blemish on her psyche, a taunting demon whispering in her inner ear all the foul things he was going to do to her only he had done those things and yet. Still. She lived. It made no sense to her. What gain could he glean from her empty shell?

'You are precious to me, little bird'

Her very being shuddered at the unwelcome thought. Her heart sped up in erratic jumps as if trying to outrun him but there was no escape and that knowledge merely made the need to get away even more essential. It was as if he took the air from her lungs for his own use, breathing back the befouled air to sustain her on the very edge of passing out. She ached all over even though she was sure her body was untouched. What madness was this? "Why are you doing this?"

'Think don't speak, it will take less energy'

"Why would I care? Death is the only gift I crave."

'Then you are doomed to disappointment'

Her heart faltered then a hard painful shudder as if it had been manually kick-started and she coughed and spluttered back into life again. "*Weishenme*? I have done nothing to you."

'Nor I to you except...'

For some reason the trailing thought was an irritation she could only excise by knowledge. "Except what?"

'Think don't speak and I will answer'

She wanted to deny him but had to know. 'Except what?'

'You will be enhanced'

The notion chilled her for reasons she could not grasp or understand.

'I will re-make your mind in my own image'

Horror built on horror. The agony of how much further he could defile her and yet leave not a mark upon her grieving flesh. Tears sprang to eyes weary of weeping, sore from the strain of all that she had witnessed and endured. Would it never end? A hand hovered over the crown of her head but like before it never touched yet still she felt despoiled by his proximity. One deseased mind polluting another. Her scream when it came was visceral and fed him in a way that physical matter could not.

* * * * *

Her lips thinned in unhappy coincidence. "They took off?"

"Yes, my lady."

Sharp eyes pinned his, a butterfly impaled between breaths. "Then why did they return?"

"Chou says a vehicle was driven off the ship before it departed."

Interest sparked in cruel eyes. "Did he see who was in the vehicle?"

Wong's expression did not change but by some subtle science she sensed his apology. "Only that there were three men in it and it appeared heavy laden."

For several moments neither spoke. Wong did not grow weary of the silence but embraced it, using the spaces between heartbeats to find a measure of peace. Even short lived every respite renewed him for what was to come.

* * * * *

Wash had been relieved when Mal told Zoe he was dropping off the cargo with Jayne. Had silently prayed that his *qizi* would not be going on this fool's errand. He knew they needed the job, that the coin it would bring was painfully needed, but so was his need to keep his wife safe and close to him. Had the Captain known that? Probably not. The man seemed to operate outside of all normal human parameters, his decisions often seeming arbitrary and hard to fathom yet he could not deny how fiercely the Captain would defend both ship and crew. Didn't much matter who it was either. Even landing on the far side of Ithaca had failed to calm his beautiful but deadly wife. Zoe was pacing the bridge, an intense look on her face that cautioned against any attempts on his part at levity.

"*Bao bei*, the Cap'n knows what he's doin'."

She almost stopped in her tracks, the look in her eyes saying she knew he didn't really believe what he was saying.

"Well, he's doin' what he knows."

"I should have gone with him, *zhangfu*."

"He has Jayne with him an' did I mention Jayne was carryin' half our arsenal of weapons? Just pray they don't go near a fire, one spark an'..."

Wash had raised his hands to heighten the theatrics of any ensuing explosion but his wife's look cut him off mid-sentence. "Not helpin', Wash."

"*Duibuqi*. Simon said Shepherd Book went with them."

Her expression tightened a fraction, obviously hurt that the Shepherd had gone not her. It was her place to watch the Captain's back and much as she was part of this crew she didn't trust that job to any other. Not that she could explain the why of it to Wash. Her husband turned from her in order to speak to ground control at Ithaca Station. Ithaca was the only moon of Anaeron and though it was mainly a used up old chunk of rock it did have its' uses. On the far side Ithaca Station was a small but fairly active re-fueling station. There were also a couple of junk yards but those were all on the near side so not available for Serenity to use without giving away their position. It would not take a genius to figure out where the Firefly had gone after leaving the Captain, Jayne and Book down on Anaeron with the mule but out of sight was sometimes as good as out of mind and they needed to be able to keep River as much off the radar of their enemies as possible. Of course, they could have done that better had they not gone back to Anaeron at all.

Wash accepted the station control's instructions and brought Serenity in to land, a sigh of relief on his lips that at least they would get the chance to re-fuel. It would take the last of their cashy money but without fuel they were not like to be able to earn any more. With luck the Captain would return with a bag of coin and no new holes in him then they would be off into the Black as quickly as their shiny Firefly could take them. At least. That was the plan.

* * * * *

Inara Serra understood the need for caution and refraining from taking on new clients at this critical time was part of that necessity but it left her with too much time on her hands and there were only so many times she could wash River's hair. Kaylee had been spending more and more time with Simon so the Companion had made herself scarce not wanting to hamper the handsome young doctor's glacial progress in the romance department. Having given Kaylee enough hints and tips to fill an encyclopedia she wondered whether Simon was really that oblivious or if his interest in Kaylee was more as a friend than a lover.

"You shouldn't meddle."

The Companion refused to react to the sudden presence of Simon's sister. Inara had endless compassion and patience with the waif like girl but there were times when River Tam tested even her limits. Privacy was supposed to mean just that.

"You don't really want to be alone." River announced as she stepped into view, her bare feet making no sound on the scatter of lush carpeting Inara had placed artfully in her shuttle. Before Inara could bristle at her assumption River smiled, honest affection taking the sting out of her words.

"Perhaps you should take your own advice, River." Said Inara mildly, a slight tease in her voice to show no offence had been taken.

River shook her head. "I'm the sounding board you never asked for, the mirror which doesn't distort..."

"River," the Companion interrupted as kindly as she could, not wanting the girl to go off into a long list which would just try her temper "was there something you wanted, *mei mei*?"

The girl's expression changed from light and happy to sad, almost despondent. "He called her Eve."

Inara blinked in confusion. "*Shei*?"

It was as if River had gone into her own little world but one of darkness and shadows. "She was the first."

"River, who are you talking about?"

She looked up as if surprised to find herself in Inara's shuttle. "Not gone yet but the end beckons even as he makes it last."

The Companion felt a chill go through her and took River's hand, alarmed to find it icy cold to the touch. Gently she guided the girl to the bed and sat her down then knelt in front of her, rubbing River's cold hands between her warm ones. The girl seemed not to notice. An aching sadness in her eyes.

"Like a crow he feeds on carrion only he likes to keep them alive. The longer the better. Makes the meat taste sweeter."

Alarmed, Inara wished Simon was there. Even though River was coherent the words made no sense to her other than to fill her with a nameless fear. Had something happened or was this a premonition? And if the latter, who was the poor soul in torment? "Perhaps we should go and find Simon?"

River shook her head. "*Bu qu*. He doesn't listen so how can he understand? Besides, Kaylee wants to kiss him." She gave a little impish smile, eyes suddenly sparkling with the memory. "I promised not to spoil it. Trying to be good but it's so hard."

A smile bowed Inara's lips, relieved to move on to a safer subject. "I'm sure they both appreciate it."

Then the brief respite vanished and River's eyes clouded with pain and sorrow. "He dissects thoughts, feelings, memories. Siphons off those he wants, hoardes them like a miser while enjoying the pain and misery he inflicts. She wants to die but he won't let her. Not until all her secrets have been opened, devoured and made his own. He terrifies her but gives no respite."

"River, who is doing this?"

"*Wo bu zhidao*, everything's too muddled. Life and death are the points on someone else's compass." She paused, the darkness slowly lifting until it was just River staring back at her. The crazy girl back in her box. "I was looking for the Captain."

"The Captain's gone down to the planet surface River. He has cargo to deliver, *jide*?"

She nodded then jumped up, laughed and clapped her hands in glee.


"He kissed her!"

Inara couldn't help but smile back, there was something very endearing and special about a happy River Tam. "Simon?"

River nodded then twirled round so that her thin dress floated around her as if she were some dryad out of the myths of Earth-that-was. "I thought I was going to grow old and grey before he made a move!"

"I don't think Kaylee would wait that long."

They enjoyed the happiness of the moment then River asked if Inara would braid her hair. Inara readily agreed, anything to keep the young girl's thoughts away from death and darkness and a doom she was hoping with passion would never become their own.

* * * * *

The Industrial District was dry as a bone but busy in a low key endless kind of way. Jayne hated the filter mask but hated the dust more, specially what it could do to his gorram lungs. Why they had to make the drop on such a miserable world as this he didn't know but you couldn't place buyers where it was convenient for you and that was a fact. The Shepherd wore his as if born to it while Malcolm Reynolds kept fiddling with his, not because it was too tight or too lose but because he couldn't stop worrying. He tried to look in every direction without looking at all. Jayne was fortunate he had a wide brimmed hat that sheltered his eyes from the sun and kept them in shadow so anyone watching couldn't see him looking. Shepherd Book didn't bother to hide the fact that he was curious and though he appeared open and relaxed Mal was reassured to note that the rifle remained at the ready in the crook of his arm.

"How far is this gorram place?"

"Not far now, Jayne. Badger said the warehouse carried Derwent's colours - that's red, gold and green. Should stick out a mile."

"Huh. On'y thing sticks out a mile is us."

"Jayne, don't be so negative. Soon as we off-load this cargo we'll take our coin an' be on our merry."

"Who are we meeting, Captain?"

"Man name of Jerrod Perkins. Seems Badger's done business with him before."

Jayne spat out a plug of tobacco. "Never heard'a him."

"That's 'cause you ain't done business with him before, Jayne."

"Huh, still never heard'a him."

Before the Captain could say anything in response a shot rang out. All three ducked.

"Told ya this was a gorram mistake!" Growled Jayne as shots pinged off the mule.

"Not helpin'."

Book's low steady voice settled them somewhat. "On your right, Captain. I saw a glint of something..."

Jayne's gun drowned out the rest of what the Shepherd was trying to say. The mercenary giving a satisfied grunt. "Got him but don't know how many more *wuneug de ren* might try pickin' us off 'fore we get there."

There were no other shots and no more sign of movement. In the distance Mal squinted then let out a small sigh of relief, he indicated for Jayne to head in that direction. "Less my eyes deceive me that's the warehouse, Jayne."

"I see it."

Jayne gunned the mule not liking being out in the open. The Captain and Book kept down low, weapons poised and ready should anyone else try to take pot shots at them before they got there but silence had fallen so completely that it was getting a mite oppressive. The closer they got to the warehouse district the less people they saw on foot. When the sniper had tried his luck it was as if someone had blown a silent whistle and everyone in the area had vanished. The Captain tried not to worry about how they were going to make it back again and what if anything might be waiting for them when they got to Perkin's warehouse.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*shei* = who? *tamade hundan* = fucking bastard *bu qu* = no (lit. no go) *dong ma* = understand? *shenjing bing* = crazy *wangu* = stubborn *shenme* = what *mashang* = at once/on the double/immediately *weishenme* = why? *qizi* = wife *bao bei* = precious/tresure *zhangfu* = husband *duibuqi* = sorry *mei mei* = little sister *wo bu zhidao* = I don't know *jide* = remember *wuneug de ren* = trash (ie despicable person)


Monday, April 16, 2012 12:10 PM


Yeah I kinda think Mal is right. River isn't the crazy one... well ok not the crazIEST one anyways. :)

Monday, April 16, 2012 2:08 PM


You are right methinks, Nutluck! Thanks for the feedback, Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"

Tuesday, April 17, 2012 9:35 AM


Well, if they know enough to station people along their way, they know enough to know where they're going. Gonna be bad.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012 12:15 PM


Best hang on to your hat, Bytemite! Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"

Wednesday, April 18, 2012 4:20 PM


I hope Mal come back bullet-free my ownself...building the intrigue, as ever, keeping us coming back for more. next chapter, please, Ms D

Thursday, April 19, 2012 9:44 AM


You know you like the intrigue, Malsdoxy! All sorts of twists and turns to come, thanks for the shiny feedback. Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"

Thursday, April 19, 2012 3:41 PM


I especially liked the River and Inara scene. Maybe we'll see what happened with Simon and Kaylee from one of their points of view? The last scene: oh, boy. Not good. Snipers on the way to the meet? Nobody around? Not good, not good. And I agree with Nutluck about who's the crazy one. Good chapter.

Friday, April 20, 2012 12:08 AM


Be careful what you wish for, Ebfiddler! All sorts coming up. Thanks for the shiny feedback - Mal and River may not be the only crazy ones. Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"


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His head still ached from the rutting probe but after the men had satisfied themselves that his story was true a thousand questions peppered the air like machine gun fire.

The vessel was shiny, sleek and black with nowhere near the bulk of an Alliance ship. Something about the way it moved through the Black was more than a little creepifying.

Personally she didn't care if Serenity was towed off to a junk yard and stripped into spare parts. She had promised the ship to Jer and his crew as a bonus but it looked like scavengers had beaten them to it.

UNFINISHED BUSINESS: 2. "Counting Chickens"
The fact that her eyes were hard and sharp with intelligence kind of chilled him. Smart women always made him uneasy, it just weren't natural.

What in the nine hells were they so afraid of? Then he remembered Tracy. The body mailed to them by their old war buddy and all the trouble that had brought down on them.

If it was too gorram wet to hunt for rabbits what in the nine hells was his son really hunting? And was it something on four legs or two?

The man was in a terrible condition, his pulse weak, and for some reason he was soaking wet which did nothing to staunch the blood soaking through his clothing and seeping from the poorly tended wound where he had been shot.

THE DICHOTOMY SERIES: 9. "All The King's Men"
The man sighed like the weight of the of the 'Verse was on his shoulders but unlike anyone else he looked like he could carry the weight.

THE DICHOTOMY SERIES: 8. "All The King's Horses"
Without warning something came through the opening and rolled with a metallic clang across the ground before exploding.

THE DICHOTOMY SERIES: 7. "Friend or Foe"
Then he found himself falling, the whole world silent as in slow motion the hordes of *diyu* came to swallow him up and everything disintegrated in fire, blood and pain.