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AMDOBELL

THE DEVIL'S CRADLE: 8. "Unseen Hands"
Saturday, May 19, 2012

It was a bloodbath. No. Really. The thick dusty ground had become a gorram red sludge, thickened by congealing blood which now became a grotesque mud with the combatants slipping and sliding in blood and entrails as knives flashed in dull red brightness and more fell in a messy cacophony of gunfire.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 1631    RATING: 10    SERIES: FIREFLY

TITLE: "UNSEEN HANDS" SERIES: THE DEVIL'S CRADLE CHAPTER: 8. Sequel to "SUFFER THE CHILDREN" FANDOM: "FIREFLY" AUTHOR: Alison M. DOBELL PAIRING: Zoe/Wash Kaylee/Simon SUMMARY: "More knowledge does not always make things clearer. Meanwhile, Kathleen gets a closer look at true evil than she could have possibly imagined."

"UNSEEN HANDS"

A "Firefly" Story

Written by Alison M. DOBELL

* * * * *

Simon donned his surgical gloves before taking the Captain's dust mask from the bag Shen Willets had put it in and began his examination. About to cut a piece and put it under his microscope he was interrupted by the man himself. Either Willets could see through the thick cloth or the man had incredible timing.

"When you do your tests doc, look closely at the fibers *dong ma*?"

"Are you saying you know why the mask affected the Captain?"

Jayne stirred by the doorway. "Yeah, 'cause he was poisoned."

Shen Willets sighed but before he could say anything the Captain spoke up. "Still standin', Jayne, so maybehaps we should listen to Shen an' let the doc do his work."

Simon wished he could throw all of them out but he needed to check both the mask and the Captain as well as do tests on Shepherd Book, Jayne and the masks they had been wearing. He had taken the precaution of asking Kaylee to bring him a new sealed mask to use as a control. Having someone familiar with them was useful, having someone like Jayne interrupting every five seconds wasn't.

"He wasn't poisoned." Sighed Willets.

For a moment everything stopped, all eyes fastened on the man in the blindfold. Shepherd Book eased himself upright from where he had been leaning against the wall. "I'm curious how you would know that."

He shook his head. "*Wo bu zhidao* but I've seen enough inferior masks to know one when I see one."

Simon resumed cutting a small square of material from the mask and carefully placed it under his microscope. "How would you tell the difference?"

"The fibers. In the good masks the fibers are tightly woven, flat. There are several layers, in one layer the fibers go one way, in the next they're crossing the first fibres an' so on. Kind'a intended to make extra sure no dust gets through, *dong ma*?"

The Captain watched Simon carefully examining the piece under his microscope and recalled something Shen had said to him earlier. "You said I coughed most of it up, that mean I'm okay now?"

"*Bu qu*, Mal. Just means it ain't like to kill you."

"Unless he was poisoned." Chipped in Jayne.

"Jayne, what the good gorram is it with you an' poisons?"

"Just sayin', Mal. You looked *hen huai*."

"If it was poison I'd be worse by now, wouldn't I? What d'you think, doc?"

Simon paused, a slight frown marring his features. "It's not poison."

The Captain started to give Jayne an 'I told you so' smile but Simon hadn't finished.

"However, the fine filtering effect of the fiber layers was ineffective because the fibers were open not closed."

Jayne scowled. Shepherd Book look a step closer, intrigued. "What do you mean, closed?"

Simon glanced at Shen Willets then at the Captain. "Is it really necessary to keep him blindfolded?"

"You were sayin' about the fibers." The Captain prompted, avoiding Simon's question.

"I've already checked the control sample. The fibers are tightly woven - closed - they lay flat and I would imagine do an excellent job of keeping most if not all the dust from penetrating the mask and thus finding their way into the lungs. The Captain's mask has a more open weave, totally ineffective in performing the same function."

"So it was tampered with?" Growled Jayne.

"I can't say that, it's possibly a manufacturing fault." He paused and addressed a question to Willets. "How many of these masks are produced on a daily basis, Mr Willets?"

The man was tempted to laugh. "Hundreds, probably thousands."

"Why'd they make so ruttin' many?" Said Jayne, a puzzled look on his face.

"We only use a mask once. Most work like they're supposed to but after a day on the surface they get clogged. Can't clean 'em 'cause of the nature of the dust which is what makes it so gorram dangerous in the first place, so we change 'em. The old ones get burned. It's why so many are made, there's a constant turnover plus every ship tradin' with us needs a supply so they can land."

"So the mask was *you maobing*?"

Simon didn't nod, wouldn't be that definitive about it though the evidence so far pointed in that direction. "It would seem so."

"Yeah, but someone could'a tampered with it, *dui*?"

The doctor stared at Jayne wondering why he was so determined to prove that someone had damaged the mask on purpose. "There's no sign of any deliberate tampering. Um, did anyone think to get a sample of the dust?"

Shen Willets began to stand up and in the blink of an eye Jayne had his gun drawn and pointed at the man's face. Shepherd Book gently put a hand on Jayne's shoulder. Willet's had not seen the exchange and calmly put a hand in his outer pocket. Jayne stifferened and would not lower his gun. Shen took out a small battered old tin and held it up between his right thumb and forefinger. "Got some right here."

Book leaned forward and eased Jayne's gun hand down, his look telling him to holster his weapon. The Captain frowned.

"Why would you be carryin' dust around, Shen? Or were you expectin' somethin' like this to happen?"

The deceptively mild tone of the Captain's voice sharpened his crew's attention but Willets was oblivious to any undercurrent, not knowing Malcolm Reynolds beyond their first meeting. "Nah, just thought if you was gettin' the mask checked you might wanna closer look at the dust."

Simon stepped up to the blindfolded man. "That was good thinking, Mr Willets. May I have the tin?"

Willets smiled and held it out on the flat of his palm. "Knock yourself out, doc, an' by the way it's Shen *dong ma*?"

Simon smiled and took the tin. "*Xie xie ni*, Shen."

* * * * *

Her eyes were round, horrified windows looking in on a madness she could barely comprehend. Each cylindrical tank held a body, naked and seemingly unconscious or in some kind of statis. All were children of various ages but most appeared to be under ten. A clear mask covered the nose and mouth with tubes snaking up from it to the top of the cylinders and disappearing from her view. As if this was not bad enough there were also smaller tanks, ones that at first seemed to have no point in being included with the rest until she peered really close and through the swirling milky cloud obscuring the contents made out the tiny forms suspended within. Kathleen gasped, a hand going up to her mouth, tears brimming in her eyes as she stared at the tiny embryonic forms. A light hand on her shoulder made her jump so badly that she was trembling still when the Operative spoke to her.

"They are perfectly healthy and will remain so."

Did he think that cold fact would really reassure her? "What are you doin' with 'em?" She also wanted to add, 'what are you going to do with me?' but didn't feel brave enough to push the point. Already she felt like she was walking on quick sand.

His smile was something incongruous to her senses, how could he possibly think this was a good thing? That what was being done was anything but a crime against both nature and humanity? Instead, he looked almost smug. As if something incredibly beautiful and life enhancing had been created and was soon to bear fruit.

"Building a better world."

* * * * *

It was a bloodbath. No. Really. The thick dusty ground had become a gorram red sludge, thickened by congealing blood which now became a grotesque mud with the combatants slipping and sliding in blood and entrails as knives flashed in dull red brightness and more fell in a messy cacophony of gunfire.

The Lady stared through the hand held screen and viewed the mayhem in silence. After a few minutes she spoke and Chou shifted the view so that she could see his face. A courtesy and mark of respect to her. "How many escaped?"

Escaped was perhaps the wrong word. Survived the slaughter would have been more accurate but Chou would not correct her. Whatever she said and however she chose to say it was the right way. "Less than a dozen."

"From which houses?"

"It matters not now, my Lady." His grin seemed odd, out of place and was a brief unexpected flash upon his sombre face. A glimpse of what lay beneath the polite mask: feral, trained to kill, to maim, to torture. "None survive now."

She did not so much as blink but he knew his answer satisfied her though she gave no outward sign of it. "What of the ship?"

"It did not return."

For just a moment she looked puzzled, confused then a spark of irritation smouldered in those cold grey eyes. "The ship must be found but there have been no sightings. It is... odd."

Chou didn't have to think about it. "They are hiding, my Lady."

Her lips twisted into a sour expression. "Yes," she said thoughtfully "but where?"

* * * * *

The cave was deep and more extensive than she had expected, the rotting refuse now numbing her ability to smell anything but even in the near dark her eyes were becoming accustomed to the lack of light yet not thanking her senses for that added burden. It was foul, dread things floating in the sewage round her feet and nothing to stand on or raise her up out of this awful muck and yet. She leaned a little closer and widened her eyes, hoping to get a little more detail to inform what she thought she was seeing. Was that, movement? Yes! Her heart skipped a beat and she watched more closely. The sewage was not just lying there it was slowly creeping along the bottom of the huge pipe that meant it had to be going somewhere, didn't it? Little Lucy Dengate wasn't sure whether she should be excited about that but if the sewage was on the move then maybe there was an outlet somewhere? And if so, she could perhaps use that to exit this awful place and hopefully find somewhere better to hide. The only problem with that was deep down in this miserable corner of *diyu* she was as far from being detectable as it was possible to get without being sealed in a gorram lead lined box and buried at sea. What if the outlet made her visible to whoever was hunting her? Would she be trading the security of this foul place for a chance to breathe good clean air in the short amount of freedom that would be left to her before she was caught? Yet Lucy could not stay here. Apart from the risk of desease she had no food and no water. Her small pile of treasures had been packed more for their comfort value than as aids to her survival. Only now was she seeing the folly of her lack of foresight.

She stared down at her feet and watched the evil foul sludge slip and drag against her ankles as it moved passed and forced herself not to gag. No. For better or worse she had to take this chance and hope it would not cost her dear.

* * * * *

Shen Willets was surprised when they took his blindfold off but not foolish enough to think they were trusting him completely which was something of a bafflement to him. Their doctor had pronounced that the Captain had not been poisoned so why was he being treated with such caution? He glanced up at the Preacher, noting they were in what looked to be a kind of dining room come kitchen come meeting place. He was seated at a big oak table and Book was looking kindly at him.

"Don't judge us too harshly, Mr Willets."

No one else appeared to be in the room and that was somewhat unexpected too. "*Wo bu dong*, I'm not your enemy Shepherd Book."

"Not saying you are but you have to understand the crew are jumpy. This incident with the mask has them all on edge."

He raised his eyebrows. "An' my bein' blindfolded helps?"

Book gave a little deep chuckle which eased Shen more than the words the man spoke. "It does though don't ask me to explain it. A very old saying from Earth-that-was translates I believe as *there's nowt as queer as folk*. I think that speaks to the oddness of people though I can't be sure. Sometimes things get lost in the translation."

"I thought your doc wanted to check you too?"

"Oh, he will but I think Jayne will keep him busy for a while yet."

That made Willets laugh then his expression sobered quickly. "You know Mal ain't outta the woods yet, *dong ma*?"

"Why do you say that?"

Shen sighed. "It's true he coughed up most of that ruttin' dust but some most likely got in his lungs."

The Shepherd looked worried. "Not enough to do damage surely?"

"Wish I could say that but it wouldn't be true. Don't know all its' properties but when the dust meets moisture of any kind it gets wet then kind'a sticks to things. You notice it after the rains. That rocky ridge you might have noticed off to the West ain't made of rock as such."

Book's eyes widened in alarm. "Are you saying the dust did that?"

He got an unhappy nod. "When it gets wet it gets kind'a thick an' muddy then sticks to whatever its' next to. Sets like rock."

"*Wode ma*!"

"Yeah, exactly. Imagine that inside a man's lungs..."

"We have to let the others know, *mashang*."

Willets started to get up but Book shook his head, a look of regret in his eyes. Taking out a blocky hand held transmitter he clicked it twice and passed on the information from Shen. A stream of swear words came back at the Shepherd before Wash told him he'd tell the Captain.

"Shepherd, don't take this the wrong way but what are you all so afraid of?"

The Preacher deliberately chose to misunderstand him. "We may need to operate on the Captain to get this stuff out of his lungs before he loses the ability to draw breath."

He nodded but Shen knew that wasn't it. There was something else Serenity's crew were not telling him, something they tip toed around, but what could it be? And why did he get the notion they feared that more than the problem with the dust?

* * * * *

Inara Serra was anxious but better at hiding it than Kaylee. They were outside looking in, watching Simon examining the Captain. Seeing Mal lying on that infirmary bed while Jayne looked on disturbed Inara more than she would ever admit. The man seemed to collect wounds and injuries like some sick kleptomaniac. Jayne had always said he was a magnet for bullets but it seemed any kind of bad luck seemed to home in on the man. Kaylee felt her natural optimism quail in the face of a threat that could not be seen but might still prove deadly.

"Cap'n ain't gonna die is he, 'Nara?"

The Companion wrapped an arm around Serenity's mechanic and gave her a bright smile that was only surface deep. "*Fang xin* Kaylee, the Captain coughed most of it up when he was sick, *jide*?"

Kaylee's eyes were still worried and fastened like limpets on Inara's own. "But not all, *dui*?"

"No, *mei mei*, not all. Simon's just making sure that the small amount that got through did no harm."

"An' if he did?"

Inara wished she had the words to wipe away her friend's concern but she didn't and truth be told she shared the worry ten-fold. As annoying and fool headed as Malcolm Reynolds could be she didn't want to see anything really bad happen to him. Was even oddly, irrationally, somewhat fond of the *wangu shenjingbing* man. Not that anyone needed to know that. "If it did Simon will find a way of treating it so you see there's really nothing to worry about."

Kaylee sniffed and tried to sound more cheerful, "An' Simon's the shiniest doc in the 'verse."

"Top Three Per Cent." Agreed Inara with a more natural smile this time. Kaylee must have caught the sincerity in it because she smiled back, her eyes watery but seeming to draw reassurance and strength from her Companion friend.

"It's not what you think."

They turned to see River standing just behind them, her pale waif like features solemn. Kaylee frowned at her.

"River, where've you been?"

"Watching, listening, staying out of sight. Can't let the blind know what he isn't supposed to see."

"Huh?"

Inara realised what River was talking about but didn't want Kaylee to worry more than she was already. Enough that they had to wait and see what would happen with the Captain. Simon had already reassured them that Jayne and Book were not likely to be in any danger as their masks had remained intact though both would be thoroughly checked out just to be sure.

"He won't die." River assured. "But at times it'll feel like he is."

Exasperated, Inara wished for the hundredth time that River would think before she opened her mouth. "River, you aren't helping."

"Can't. The dust isn't generic but is just as deadly."

Inara and Kaylee stared at her, their mouths dry. Just then another voice piped up. "What's just as deadly?"

They turned to find an anxious Wash and Zoe. Inara wished she could say something to mitigate the odd pronouncements of their resident genius but really, she had no idea how much of what River said was true. The girl had the odd gift of being both right and obscure in equal measure. River gave Zoe a look of such intensity that the first mate felt her spine stiffen, braced for whatever bad news was coming their way. A clatter on the metal staircase announced the arrival of company. For a moment Inara had forgotten that Serenity was sitting inside the terraforming monstrosity belonging to Rufus Pol, a man she wouldn't trust to shake hands with her in case she was left with some of her fingers missing. And yet, the man had offered help when needed and so far had asked nothing in return. Rufus tensed when he saw the looks on their faces, fearing something awful had happened to Mal. He opened his mouth but River spoke before he could utter a sound.

"Too early to celebrate or worry. Simon knows best."

With that River opened the door to the infirmary and quickly shut and locked it behind her. At the glare from Zoe she grinned then made her way over to where Simon was looking at something under his microscope. The Captain was sitting up but looked pale. Jayne gave River a wary look. Girl might not be armed but there was no question in his mind who was the most deadly and unpredictable person on this boat.

"River, you shouldn't be in here." Her brother said mildly. Half distracted he had not needed to look up from what he was doing to know she was there.

"The dust isn't poison but is just as lethal, Simon."

That caught everyone's attention. The Captain finished buttoning up his shirt and began to slide his braces back up. "Ain't lethal, is just a cough little one."

She shook her head as he cleared his throat. "The dust isn't natural, *dong ma*?"

If anything the Captain got paler. Alarmed, Simon stepped away from the microscope. "What do you mean, River?"

"Anaeron is a partly terraformed world."

The Captain nodded. "*Wo zhidao*."

"What you don't know is that it wasn't finished because they didn't find the kind of minerals they were looking for. It made the whole project too expensive and for little gain so they used it as a dumping ground."

Simon was not sure what his sister was saying. Jayne was beginning to have a horrible feeling that this conversation was going nowhere good. "What did they dump?"

"Nothing intentionally toxic."

"Huh," grunted Jayne "that's makes a gorram change."

"They would bring in their terraforming ships and jettison the slag left over. They didn't have a use for it and had discovered it made people sick."

"So they decided to let other folk get sick, that it?" Said Mal, his voice bitter and a mite hoarse.

River looked sad. "Because they saw no use for Anaeron they never bothered to warn anyone. Saw no profit in it. Years went by and they'd moved on, found other ways to dispose of their waste material, fired a lot of it into the nearest sun."

"River?"

She turned her head and looked straight at the Captain, knew what he wanted to ask but waited for him to speak anyway.

"When you say it ain't poison but is lethal, what did you mean?"

"You already know some of it, that the dust reacts with water - any moisture in fact - which means if you breathe it in dry by the time it gets to your lungs it has picked up the moisture there and once wet it sticks to the walls of the lungs and sets. Before long each inhalation of the dust thickens and hardens against the walls of the lungs, coats the trachea too and the back of the throat even the mouth."

"Gorramit," the Captain whispered horrified, suddenly understanding his symptoms were not ones that would simply go away on their own "there any way to get it out once it's in?"

River shook her head, her eyes huge liquid pools of sorry but then she brightened up and turned to her brother. "Don't have to remove it if you can dissolve it."

"*Mei mei*, I don't even know what it is yet."

She nodded. "They were stupid, thought is was a useless and dangerous by-product. Waste material but where there's muck there's money."

"River, we don't have time for this."

"*Ting*! The very properties that make it so deadly when inhaled make it so useful externally."

They just stared at her like she had lost her mind. River huffed.

"On Earth-that-was they had something similar. They called it concrete."

"You sayin' my innnards are turnin' to concrete?" Her laugh was short, not so much funny as startled out of her.

"Not funny, little one."

"*Wode duibuqi."

They heard a hammering on the door and turned to see a crowd of faces staring back at them in frustration. Simon looked at his sister. "Did you lock the door?"

River shrugged. "They would have been a distraction."

"River, you know how this dust can be dissolved?"

The little genius nodded then gave the Captain a sombre look, leaned close and softened her voice. "Didn't mean to scare you but there isn't much time. Sometimes a shock to the system gets things moving much quicker than reason."

"Then best you tell Simon *mashang* 'cause I don't feel so good."

Jayne backed off quickly. "Ya ain't gonna throw up again are ya?"

"If I do you'll be the first to know, Jayne."

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*dong ma* = understand? *wo bu zhidao* = I don't know *bu qu* = no (lit. no go) *dui* = correct *you maobing* = faulty *xie xie ni* = thank you *wo bu dong* = I don't understand *diyu* = hell *wode ma* = mother of God *mashang* = on the double/immediately/at once *jide* = remember *fang xin* = don't worry (lit. ease your heart) *mei mei* = little sister *wangu* = stubborn *shenjingbing* = crazy *ting* = listen *wode duibuqi* = I'm sorry *wo zhidao* = I know

COMMENTS

Saturday, May 19, 2012 11:31 AM

NUTLUCK


Concrete lungs sound unpleasant.

Saturday, May 19, 2012 11:49 AM

AMDOBELL


Just as well it's not contagious, Nutluck! Thanks for commenting, Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"

Saturday, May 19, 2012 5:25 PM

ZZETTA13


My gosh Ali, the crew of Serenity seem to be in some pretty solid trouble. As solid as a brick wall, well make that a concrete wall. Whatever is happening to Mal sounds like it’s going to be painful. At least Miss Tam might know of something that will have this not become fatal.
Also looks like the Triads have maybe wiped each other out. Hope Little Lucy can remain undetected. Lot of things still going on. Plenty of intrigue.
Z

Sunday, May 20, 2012 12:25 AM

AMDOBELL


Yes, all manner of things happening, Zzetta13. In some ways River is the crew's little Guardian Angel, they just don't always understand what she is trying to tell them. And little Lucy isn't the only one needing to keep her head beneath enemy radar. Thanks for the shiny feedback, Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"

Sunday, May 20, 2012 5:54 AM

MALSDOXY


Well, at least he's not bleeding? I can't wait to hear how the 'removal' scenario works out, excellent chapter, as ever, AliD

Sunday, May 20, 2012 7:06 AM

AMDOBELL


No, he isn't bleeding Malsdoxy! Thanks for the feedback, Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"

Sunday, May 20, 2012 10:04 AM

BYTEMITE


Concrete is dangerous for lots of reasons. The lime that gives it the quickset properties is caustic and the reaction with water would increase the temperature and cause burns, so there may well be other damage to the lungs when they get in there as well. And it can also set on fire under certain circumstances.

"Having gained the wind of the French, he came down upon them with violence; and throwing in their faces a great quantity of quick lime, which he purposely carried on board, he so blinded them, that they were disabled from defending themselves."

Sunday, May 20, 2012 10:13 AM

AMDOBELL


All true Bytemite except this isn't concrete, it just sets like it when wet. Thanks for your most interesting feedback, Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"

Sunday, May 20, 2012 5:42 PM

EBFIDDLER


I am worried about Mal, because not only is it already bad, but there's potential for worse. I'm glad they were able to figure out what River was talking about this time. I am wondering about the Operative and the tanks with the embryos -- I do not like his better world. You've done a great job of writing creepiness there. And what is Lucy going to do now?

Monday, May 21, 2012 12:24 AM

AMDOBELL


Mal certainly does seem to be a magnet for trouble of most every kind, lucky he has such a shiny crew. As for the Better World it makes you wonder if the Operatives were brain washed. And little Lucy? More coming up in the next part. Thank you for the shiny feedback, Ali D :~)

Monday, June 4, 2012 12:26 PM

BYTEMITE


Oh yeah, I have to second the Operative. muy creepy!


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