THE DEVIL'S CRADLE: 16. "Motives and Machinations"
Friday, July 20, 2012

None of the men commented on the fact that his hand had begun to shake slightly. Not none of them were cowards but some things you couldn't go up against and hope to make any impression except a smear on the ground.


TITLE: "MOTIVES AND MACHINATIONS" SERIES: THE DEVIL'S CRADLE CHAPTER: 16. Sequel to "TRAIL OF TEARS" FANDOM: "FIREFLY" AUTHOR: Alison M. DOBELL PAIRING: Zoe/Wash Kaylee/Simon Mal/Inara RATING: PC-13 SUMMARY: "Zoe sends the crew looking for Shen Willets while River tries to impress on the Captain the need for them to get moving if they want to locate the children. Only River doesn't know where to go and the Captain is determined not to let her out of his sight."


A "Firefly" Story

Written by Alison M. DOBELL

* * * * *

Zoe couldn't stop cursing herself for not noticing when Shen had disappeared from sight. She had been distracted and while Book and Jayne had been given the task of watching Shen, things had become far too lax. First he was allowed out of the spare quarters he had been confined to, second neither Book nor Jayne seemed to think it necessary to keep an eye on him any more. She wanted to rip Jayne a new one but that would mean doing the same to Shepherd Book and really it was down to her as the second in command to make sure they understood about not letting down their guard. Yelling at them now would just pile up resentment and that was the last thing they needed. She met Jayne, Book and Wash coming the other way. Zoe frowned at her husband but he wasn't about to go back to the bridge without knowing what was going on. After all, it wasn't as if Serenity was going anywhere.

"Have any of you seen Shen?"

Jayne frowned, trying to recall the last time then his expression cleared. "Oh yeah, he helped me clean up the mess."

"What mess?"

"Rufus. Kept findin' bits of him."

Her eyes narrowed. "I told you to clean that up."

"Yeah, *wo zhidao* an' that's what I was doin' but he just came up an' asked if I wanted any help." Jayne shrugged then grinned. "Gave him the worst part too, he ain't that smart."

"An' bein' as how you're smarter than him Jayne you know where he went afterwards, *dui*?"

The big man's grin slid off right quick. "Uh, no. Had to empty the bucket." "Shen didn't go with you?"

"Nah, he was still pickin' up bits from between the gratin'."

"An' when you got back?"

Jayne's expression darkened. "He was gone but then I heard Simon shoutin' an' figured somethin' bad was happenin' in the infirmary."

It all made too much sense. Zoe looked at Shepherd Book but he shook his head. He hadn't seen Shen Willets recently but was puzzled as to why Zoe was so up tight about it. "We don't know that he did anything." He reasoned.

"An' we don't know he didn't."

The Preacher fell silent. Wash could see how Zoe might be unhappy that no one had kept watch on Shen but wasn't he one of the good guys?

"We gotta find him, *mashang*!"

Shepherd Book nodded. "Best we split up. He might not even be on Serenity any more but somewhere on the terraforming ship. That's a lot of ground to cover."

"Just hope he is."

Jayne frowned. "Where else would he go?"

Zoe locked eyes with the mercenary. "Outside."

Jayne's eyes widened. Zoe nodded, her tone clipped and hard. She watched them go then turned to her husband. "Wash, I'd like you to stay up on the bridge. We don't know what this may mean but I don't wanna take any chances that Shen might try to stop Serenity bein' able to take off, *dong ma*?"

He paled. "Then someone needs to..."

"*Fang xin*, I'm on my way to the engine room right now. Need Kaylee to lock her down."

* * * * *

The den was much as he had left it but Silas was nothing if not thorough. He took his time familiarising himself not only with the burrow and the layout of the tunnels off it but also the scent and anything he could find that might give him a clue as to the identity of the boy who had thwarted him. Oddly enough all he could detect was the faint but persistent odour of the wolf. Had the boy used wolf dung to mask his own scent? Was that why he could not detect him? No. There had to be more to it than that. And the girl, what of her? How had she managed to vanish off his radar? It was frustrating. Silas had pursued them as far along the deep winding tunnels as he could but the tunnel walls grew narrower until even a slim person like himself could no longer get his adult body any further. Were the children trapped somewhere deep below? Instinct told him they were not, that they had got out but where did they exit? He had painstakingly located every exit he could find and blocked them up. All but the entry to the burrow itself. Now he had another idea. Thinking of the wolf dung had brought the notion to mind and a surly grin decorated features that had been far from handsome to begin with. But first he would wait again for nightfall. It was a risk but he truly believed they were no longer in the tunnel system which meant there was an exit he had yet to find. He would set a fire using the dung then block up the entrance to the burrow and look for the plume of black smoke to see where it came out. In the meantime he secreted himself deep in the burrow and waited. If the wolf returned meantime, he would bind it. The boy would maybehaps sense the wolf's distress and be forced to return to save or free the animal that had befriended him. And if the boy came not the wolf would die. A small downpayment of what would be in store for the boy when he finally caught up with him.

* * * * *

'We have to go'

The Captain glanced away from River towards Simon. The doctor had his back to him and was painstakingly sterilising his medical instruments.

'Can't go nowhere without a destination, River. Unless you're tellin' me where those children are'

'No. To set the trap'

He almost spoke out loud but River glared at him, her thoughts admonishing him not to say or do anything to set her brother off again. 'River, you know whatever we do affects the rest of the crew, *dong ma*? Can't go sneakin' off without tellin' nobody an' I wouldn't do it even I could'

'That wasn't what we agreed'

'As I recall, little one, I didn't agree to you handin' yourself over to the enemy - whoever that may be. Said I'd help if I could but I'm needin' more information. No tantrums, mind'

Her glare was short lived. Everything the Captain said was true but the growing convinction that time was running out was making her almost frantic with worry. 'A voice has stilled, gone forever, and those that are left are dwindling - one by one. We have to hurry!'

'Just tell me where'

Her eyes widened with misery, large liquid pools of growing despair. '*Wo bu zhidao* that's why I need to bait them so they give themselves away'

'This those blue handed *guai* been chasin' you since the Academy?'

To his surprise River shook her head. Simon turned and caught the movement, his expression turning to one of swift concern. "River, is everything alright?"

River rolled her eyes. "*Wode hao*, Simon. The Captain was going to speak so I shook my head at him, it doesn't mean what you think."

Simon blinked. Well. That was clear as mud then. He gave the Captain a wary look which deepened into full blown suspicion as his patient tried to affect a look of innocence. The Captain decided not to rile the man and picked up a half used piece of paper and the stub of pencil. - Need to be up and about, Simon -

"What you actually need is rest."

- Can't rest like this -

Simon raised an eyebrow and just stared at him. The Captain huffed and had to write small to cram anything else on the bit of paper.

- I'm Captain. Got a ship to run, *dong ma*? -

Simon nodded but didn't give an inch. "And I'm the doctor not you, Captain. When you are good and rested you can go..."

Before the Captain could think of a way to show Simon just how much he needed to be out of the infirmary and back about his Captain-y duties, Jayne Cobb's voice sailed over the ship's com sounding panicked and somewhat distressed.

"They's dead!"

Zoe's voice floated over the airwaves, crisp and succinct in reply. "*Shei*?"

The Captain's heart sank when he heard Jayne's response. "All of 'em!"

Simon opened his mouth to speak but realised he was already too late. Malcolm Reynolds was already up and running out of the door. River started to follow, paused in the doorway and looked back at her brother with an apologetic look on her face. "They should have been safe and secure. Now they're secure but will never be safe again."

Simon frowned, then River too was gone. What in the nine hells was that all about? And what did Jayne mean they were all dead?

* * * * * Jerrod Perkins didn't like this. Where the *diyu* was Willets? He should have heard something from Shen but hadn't even been sent a coded wave. What in the nine hells was keeping him? Had they run into trouble? Howdy Marks watched his boss pacing back and forth. The other men were moving about quietly as if not wanting to disturb him. They had cargo that needed transporting off world but no one to do the ferrying. Thanks to the shipment Serenity had already delivered they were able to keep their business going but it was a two way operation. With nothing going off world to be sold there was no much needed funds coming in and no hope of finding another transport Captain likely to step in to fill the breach. Perkins had been hopeful that Malcolm Reynolds would prove to be their long term solution. It was hard enough to transport cargo to and from Anaeron, the noose they had been fighting against was tightening incrementally month by month, then week by week, now day by day. Wasn't sure how much longer they could stay in business.

Howdy's face twisted up into a frown. "We could send 'em a wave, *laoban*."

Perkins shook his head firmly, that was the one thing they could not do. "We do that it'd be like paintin' a gorram bullseye on ship an' crew."

"Yeah, but it's our transport." Piped up Billy Parker, looking up from stacking crates as the other men sorted them.

"Won't matter." Perkins ran a hand through his hair.

None of the men commented on the fact that his hand had begun to shake slightly. Not none of them were cowards but some things you couldn't go up against and hope to make any impression except a smear on the ground. Too many strangers with money had been moving in, buying up real estate, setting up businesses that seemed to have no trade but the movement of men and munitions. Didn't take a genius to realise that the first *baichi* to stick his head above the parapet wall to ask what was going on was like to get it shot clean off his fool shoulders.

Howdy spat out the plug of tobacco he had been chewing. "What we gonna do?"

"We wait." The men did not look happy but no one gainsayed him. Jerrod Perkins looked from face to face, his expression hardening as his mood darkened.

"We're against the wire here, boys. Best pray Shen just got hisself side tracked. If I find that Reynolds an' his crew have done anythin' to him then we'll be teachin' that *wang en fuyi* Cap'n a lesson he won't forget."

* * * * *

For all its' spick and span walls, ceiling and floor, the theatre looked more like the inside of an abattoir. Six operating tables held the remains of children ranging in ages from 10 to 13 years old. From the neck down they were whole, but the top of each head had been surgically removed. The mortician using his specialised saw to remove the top of each skull with clinical precision. He then left and the technicians moved in, one per table. The Operative looked down from the viewing gallery and watched, his eyes switching from one table to the next, his lips compressed in a grim unhappy line as he increased the magnification on the monitors so as not to miss anything. When at last all of the children had been examined he was almost expecting the findings.

"You are certain?"

The Chief Surgical Technician nodded, no expression on his face. "*Qu, shifu*."

The Operative frowned slightly. "Yet you found no incisions?"

"No, *shifu*."

For a moment the Operative said nothing. He mulled over the facts such as they were. "How could this be done?"

"*Wo bu zhidao*."

"Are you saying you could not do it?"

The Chief Surgical Technician was careful not to look away from the Operative. "Not without surgery, *shifu*. There are no leisons other than those we created when we operated. However this was done it was very professional."

The Operative stared at him. It was obvious that the surgical team were baffled none more so than their Chief Technician.


The Operative shook himself out of his brief reverie. "There is something else?"

"The children. We have completed the first twelve with identical results, do you wish us to operate on the rest?"

It was on the tip of his tongue to say yes but common sense held him back. What point would there be in losing them all if the results would only be the same? No. They would make good on their losses by locating the other children but first, there was one priority above all others. They must find the Hunter, Silas Cord. Only then would he be able to find out how the Hunter had tampered with the children and what he had done with their gifts. He must be found *mashang* but alive at all costs. Without the answers the questions meant nothing.

* * * * *

To all intents and purposes they could have been sleeping only Zoe knew they were not. As soon as she had reached the lock up Zoe unlocked the door with her voice code and Simon pushed passed them to check for signs of life. None were found and yet there was not a mark on any of the men. Zoe stepped just outside the door, a creepy feeling settling in her bones and making her reluctant to stay in the secure room in case the door shut fast behind them. As she was the only one able to open it, it made sense to take precautions especially if the person responsible was Shen Willets. They had yet to locate the man or find out how these men had died. Jayne edged towards the door but couldn't take his eyes off the bodies.

"They poisoned?"

Simon was kneeling next to the body of Jonas Merrit. Zoe remembered Kaylee laughing with him. It felt all manner of wrong to see them lying like that, a pile of broken dolls and just as lifeless. Simon gave a small shake of the head. "I don't think so but it's impossible to tell until I can examine them properly. We need to get them to the infirmary."

"*Bu qu*!"

Startled, Simon turned to stare at Zoe as he rose to his feet. "I need to do a much more thorough exam."

Her words were clipped, no give in them at all. "Do it here."

"This is hardly a sterile area."

"Don't care what it is but we don't know how they died. Could be whatever killed them is transmittable, *dong ma*?"

Jayne swore and hurried out of the door. "Could'a warned me!"

Zoe gave him a cold look, her expression and tone flat. "Just did."

Simon Tam wanted to protest but Zoe started speaking again.

"Want you to go back to the infirmary, Simon."

"Yes, I'll need to get my equipment..."

"Make sure whatever killed them isn't gonna do the same to us."

Simon's mouth flapped open a few times on empty air, a look of horror on his face. "*Wode ma*, what was I thinking? We need to be quarantined."

"Just until you can give us the all clear."

"What if I can't?"

Jayne scowled at Simon. "What if you can't what?"

"Give you the all clear."

Zoe took a calming breath. "Let's take one problem at a time. First you check us out. I'll order the rest of the crew to steer clear of the infirmary until further notice."

"What about that *wangba dan* Shen Willets?"

"We don't know he did this Jayne but we have to make sure anyone who comes across him doesn't get too close."

Jayne'e eyes were wide, the edge of panic starting to crowd in. "I say we shoot first ask questions later."

Simon looked appalled. "That would be murder!"

The mercenary sneered at him. "You think those men in there died of old age? I say we don't give him the chance to do to us what he did to them."

"I agree."

Simon couldn't believe what he was hearing. Zoe held up a hand to stop him protesting.

"You still got those tranquilisin' darts, Simon?"

The doctor nodded.

"*Hen hao*. Come on, we need to get to the infirmary but I have to call ahead, make sure the Cap'n an' River go an' wait for us in the commons room. I also need to tell Book to pick up the tranquiliser gun an' darts."

"The darts are in the infirmary." Said Simon slowly.

They were walking briskly now but Zoe shot him a questioning look. "So?"

"It might be best to ask the Captain to take the darts with him when he and River leave the infirmary, that way we will have no chance of contaminating them if we touch them."

Zoe's lips thinned but she nodded. It was an excellent point. Reaching a com unit she glanced around for something to touch it with. Jayne just slammed his palm on it to switch it on. At her glare he frowned. "What?"

It occurred to Zoe that explaining to Jayne would take up time they might not have. She shook her head and spoke into the com unit, reassured when Book immediately said he would head back to pick up the gun and darts. It took a bit more explaining to get the Captain to agree with the plan but River interrupted him and said they were going now.

"You have the tranquiliser darts?"

River's voice sailed back over the com. "We do, now hurry. The infirmary's empty, lock it behind you and let us know when it's all clear."

A little smile tugged at Zoe's lips despite the situation. In the background she could hear Mal complaining that he was the Captain.

* * * * *

Out in the open now Nicholas broke into a run. Tired, covered in dirt and so hungry she couldn't stop her stomach from rumbling, Lucy stopped to take a breather. Nicholas ran back to her, every cell in his body seemingly vibrating with urgency. 'We have to keep moving'

'Too tired and I haven't eaten'

'You can't eat when you're dead, Lucy'

Her glare had no affect on him. She opened her mouth to speak out loud but his thoughts intruded harshly into her mind, almost bruising her with the roughness of it.

'Think don't speak out loud. We aren't safe like this or do you want to get caught?'

Lucy knew he was right but still resented the way he rammed the point home.

'Come on, I know somewhere we can go but we have to go now!'

It seemed as if she had been running all her life, her legs moving like lead weights that didn't belong to her but sluggishly obeyed her commands. Any moment she expected to drop but whenever she flagged Nicholas urged her on.

* * * * *

The Captain wanted to hang back, talk to Zoe and find out what the good gorram was going on but River was insistent. Her thoughts blaring inside his head so loudly that he acquiessed just for a little bit of silence. Naturally, River being River, it didn't last.

'We have to go'

'Already done that, little one' The Captain thought back at her as they headed for seats at the table. The Captain was feeling a mite light headed and anxious to catch up on what was happening but River had other ideas.

'They're dying'

Tired as he was the Captain reacted to the raw anguish flooding his mind and drew her into his arms. River didn't shrug him off, her mind walking dark paths that they would have to follow only she didn't know where the children were. Only that their situation was beyond desperate now and every hour they delayed another light was extinquished. 'Have to go' She cried into his shoulder.

The Captain put the transquiliser darts down on the table and carefully pulled out the nearest chair then sat. River folded into his lap almost without realising she was doing so. Her face was even paler than normal, her hair hanging in long lank strands between which her wide staring eyes shone with a dim light. He took a couple of deep breaths to oxygenate his flagging lungs, still feeling the after effects of surgery though he was getting slowly stronger. Liked to think he would have his very fine voice back soon but in the meantime rest would have to wait. 'You know where these *tamade hundan* have these children, River?'

'*Bu qu*' River paused and looked him in the eyes, suddenly as calm and lucid as a normal person. It was kind of unsettling if he was any judge. 'Time to put out the bait'

Alarmed he went to tighten his hold on her but like the fey thing she was River slipped off his lap and out of reach. 'River, this ain't a good idea'

In his head, her thoughts were bleak but firm. 'No good ones left'

Just then Shepherd Book hurried into the commons room and seeing the tranquiliser darts on the table made a bee line for them. The Captain frowned. "You gonna tell me w...what the good... gorram is... goin' on?"

Creaky and soft though his voice was the Shepherd must have had ears like a bat because he heard him. "Shen Willets has gone missin'."

The Captain blinked. Not comprehending. "An' this..." he paused to whet his lips to continue speaking "requires... tranq... tranquilisers?"

"Rufus Pol's crew are dead, Captain."

Malcolm Reynolds stared at him as if he was talking a foreign rutting language. One he didn't speak or know his own self. "Dead?"

"*Qu*. Someone killed them while they were in the secure lock up and the only one missin' at the time was Shen."

"That... don't make... sense."

"Which is why I'll be usin' tranquilisers. If there's been some mistake at least Shen will recover, no harm done, but best not to take chances until we know."

The Captain opened his mouth to ask another question but Book was already gone. "Huh, everyone's dis... disappearin'."

A tug on his sleeve made him turn his head. River stared at him. 'Not everyone'

'You ain't bein' no bait, River. Pick another plan'

She shook her head, expression grim. To his surprise she now spoke out loud, somehow the words more creepifying for being uttered. "Too late, they're on their way."

His heart faltered. "*Shei*?"

For a moment her eyes lost focus. "Correction. Already here."

Alarm shot through him at the speed of light. On his feet in a second he needed to warn his crew but River was shaking her head, her lips pursed together as if tasting something sour. 'Too dangerous'


'They're monitoring all transmissions'

'You have to hide, little one, *mashang*'

She shook her head, her look almost gentle. 'They aren't looking for me'

Totally baffled now he just stared at her.

'They don't know I'm here'

'All the more reason for you to hide'

Her grin was fleeting but not reassuring. Reminding him too much of a gorram ancient creature from Earth-that-was. All teeth and bad attitude. Seemed to recall Simon had called it a crocodile or somesuch. 'This is our chance'

'River, this ain't a game'

'Time to go hunting'

The Captain was about to argue, to list all the reasons this was the worst possible idea. River just stared at him, waiting him out, in frustration he turned to walk out of the commons room and go in search of Zoe. The sudden prick in the back of his neck was a surprise, shock swiftly following as he felt the drug seep through his already overly taxed system. River didn't try to catch him but moved the chair and guided his fall so that he crumpled into it as if he was a gorram balloon that someone had let the air out of. With a little sad sigh of apology she removed the dart she had taken while the Captain wasn't paying attention. Fortunately, Book would not know that he was one short and by the time the Captain regained consciousness it wouldn't matter. Either way, River Tam knew she could not afford to fail.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*wo zhidao* = I know *dui* = correct *mashang* = at once/on the double/immediately *dong ma* = understand? *fang xin* = don't worry (lit. ease your heart) *shei* = who *wo bu zhidao* = I don't know *guai* = devil/ghost *wode hao* = I'm good *diyu* = hell *laoban* = boss *baichi* = idiot *wang en fuyi* = ungrateful *qu* = yes (lit. go) *shifu* = sir *bu qu* = no (lit. no go) *wode ma* = mother of God! *wangba dan*/*tamade hundan* = fucking bastard *hen hao* = very good *jieshi* = explain


Friday, July 20, 2012 5:28 PM


Mal is going to be very cross and have many words for River I think when he wakes back up.

Monday, July 23, 2012 10:28 AM


Hmm. I'll be interested to find out if River is overestimating herself here. She usually doesn't, but, I was having a conversation with someone recently about how interesting that would be.

Monday, July 23, 2012 11:48 AM


You are right Nutluck, the Captain is not going to be happy at all with his little Albatross. As for River overestimating herself, Bytemite, she is reacting emotionally to what is happening to the children and it is clouding her judgement. Thank you for the shiny feedback, Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"

Tuesday, August 7, 2012 3:42 PM


Back from vacation, Ali, and finally I get to catch up on your story. :-)
Unexpected events with Shen going missing and all the men dead. River's determined to go forward with her plan, and I'm not sure of the wisdom of it. Mal is not going to be happy at how he was used -- he was forwarding her plan, but when he has second thoughts, she uses the tranquilizer. The only benefit there, is that Mal definitely needs the rest, and he wasn't going to take it if left to his own devices.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012 12:41 AM


Hope you had a great vacation, Ebfiddler. River's intuitive stream of consciousness does not run in tandem with anyone else's so while she wants to help she doesn't always think to make sure it is in line with whatever Mal is planning. And sometimes, she just gets impatient. Thanks for the feedback, Ali D :~)
"You can't tae 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.