THE DEVIL'S CRADLE: 23. "Armaggedon"
Saturday, September 29, 2012

The stumbling race to get to somewhere safe had been spurred on by the genuine fear of pursuit but once she had dragged herself up into the lip of the sewage pipe everything had gone eerily quiet.


TITLE: "ARMAGGEDON" SERIES: THE DEVIL'S CRADLE CHAPTER: 23. Sequel to "HEROES AND MONSTERS" FANDOM: "FIREFLY" AUTHOR: Alison M. DOBELL PAIRING: Zoe/Wash Kaylee/Simon Mal/Inara SUMMARY: "General Wallace makes an alarming discovery. Worried about the Captain's condition Zoe informs the crew that they may need to take drastic action. Meanwhile Commandant Urquart acts and Serenity's crew realise the Captain is not the only one in trouble."


A "Firefly" Story

Written by Alison M. DOBELL

* * * * *

The bodies were laid out side by side in their hermetically sealed chambers. General Wallace tried not to stare as he followed Sgt Ford down through the hold of the ship. At first he thought the man intended to go back out onto the planet surface but he stopped suddenly, a couple of chambers from the end of the row. General Wallace frowned. What was this?


Sgt Phinneas Ford swallowed slowly, in fact he looked anything but happy or comfortable. As the General's frown deepened, Ford pointed to the third sealed chamber from the end. "Beggin' your pardon, *shifu*, but the chamber's leakin'."

Wallace blinked. "*Wode ma*, how is that possible? They're hermetically sealed units."

"*Wo bu dong* but that isn't all, *shifu*." The man waited for the General to say something but when it was obvious he was expecting some kind of further explantion, Sgt Ford put his gloves on and gingerly tilted the end of the chamber. The General leaned down and began to go pale.

"Is that...?"

"Yes, sir, somethin' is eatin' through the sealed chamber."

"That's *bu keneng*!"

"It's worse than that, *shifu*."

General Wallace was not sure his heart could take anything worse.

"Unless my eyes are deceivin' me, General, somethin' is eatin' its' way from the inside of that chamber out."

A look of panic flashed over the General's face. "Have you checked the other chambers, Sgt?"

"Not yet, sir."

"Then get on it, *mashang*. I'll send someone down to help you. Once we have the tally make sure everyone evacuates the area."

"What do we do then, *shifu*?"

Straightening like a man bracing to bear a great burden the General gave his answer. The only one he was able to give. "The ship goes into lockdown."

* * * * *

Inara was upset. No sooner did they survive one near death experience than another came hard on its' heels. What was it about this ship and crew that drew all the lightning bolts of Hell and Damnation? Inara shook her head and pulled herself together, knowing it was not that bad but when things did go wrong they never happened in isolation. Zoe had explained the Captain's condition as best she could. No one was allowed in or out of the infirmary except the doctor and now they were thinking the unthinkable.

"You can't put Mal in the airlock, Zoe!"

"Not what I wanna do, Inara, but if we can't contain whatever is causin' this we gotta consider the worst case scenario."

They were in the cargo bay, the impromptu meeting depressing every one of them. With the ship not going anywhere until given a heading Wash had hurried to join them and find out what the latest crisis was. He was dumbfounded and disturbed by the latest awful development. His eyes widened in unfettered disbelief. "We're jettisonin' the Cap'n?"

Shepherd Book shook his head. "Nobody is jettisonin' anybody, Wash. It's just a precaution."

"How can ventin' someone into the atmo be a precaution? It's not like we can haul the body back in if Simon comes up with a cure."

Zoe turned weary eyes on her husband. "*Zhangfu* we are not dumpin' the Cap'n outta the airlock, it's just the most heavily shielded place on the ship, *dong ma*? If things get so bad we can't contain this thing we put the Cap'n in there so it don't spread."

"What if there ain't no cure?" Said Jayne.

"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it."

Just then a rattling of boots on the metal staircase had them turning to see who it was. Kaylee was running down the stairs as fast as she could, her face flushed and excited. As she reached the others she held up a couple of blocky objects trailing wires. "Cap'n was right, them purplebellies hid a couple'a trackers but that's not all. I checked the engine an' they'd fitted a ruttin' inhibitor, wouldn't'a thought to look for it but Cap'n said to check they hadn't done nothin' to the engine. The rest of the ship looks good though, don't think they tried to interfere with the air." She paused, noticing that no one was congratulating her for finding the trackers and inhibitor. In fact they looked so glum she wondered who the good gorram had died. "*Shenme shi*?"

It was the hardest thing for Zoe to explain to Kaylee about the Captain. Seeing the girl's face crumple and tears gather in her eyes, Inara moved close and put an arm around the mechanic's shoulders.

"Cap'n was gettin' better, Simon said so!" Kaylee wailed.

Shepherd Book tried to reassure her. "We don't know what happened but Simon is doing everything he can."

"So why ya all lookin' like Cap'n ain't gonna make it?"

"Kaylee, whatever this is it's somethin' none of us have seen before but if anyone can find an answer Simon can." Zoe paused and looked them each in the eye. "But we have to also face the fact that Simon might not be able to fix this."

Inara could not believe what she was hearing, that Zoe of all people would give up on Mal. "Then we find someone who can."


"No, Zoe, hear me out. If Simon can't find out what this is then let me make some calls. The Guild has connections, I may be able to do something."

"If it has anythin' to do with goin' cap in hand to the Alliance you can forget it, Inara. Much as I appreciate you wantin' to help do you really think the Cap'n would go for it or any of them would lift a finger to help ? Especially as we think the Alliance are responsible for the Cap'n's condition."

"This 'cause of that dust they tramped through the ship?" Growled Jayne.

Zoe nodded. "Looks like though Simon says it don't look exactly the same under the microscope."

The mercenary screwed up his face. "What does that mean? Ya sayin' the dust mutated?"

Actually it was a good question and one that had not occurred to Zoe. Kaylee looked distraught, her eyes widening as she listened to them talk about possibilities that scared the *diyu* out of her. "Ya make it sound alive!"

"Nobody's saying that Kaylee." Soothed the Shepherd. "But I'm thinking the Captain's condition may not be a new one. We are assuming he picked up something when the Alliance boarded Serenity, whether another dose of the dust or some variant of it."

The first mate gave him a sharp look. "*Ni zhide shi shenme*?"

"Could be the old one wasn't as straightforward as we thought."

Everyone fell silent. After a few minutes Wash gave his wife an anxious look. "Just what we need, *bao bei*. Another complication."

* * * * *

She half lay in the stinking fetid sludge, her head propped up on her folded arms, no longer caring what she was lying in. Little Lucy Dengate was so gorram tired and all cried out. The stumbling race to get to somewhere safe had been spurred on by the genuine fear of pursuit but once she dragged herself up into the lip of the sewage pipe everything had gone eerily quiet. Had she imagined those stones being dislodged? Was fear now creating new monsters to hold hands with the old? And if she was safe what then? With no food or water and too afraid to venture out again would this be the place she died?

* * * * *

Four sets of eyes watched the data like hawks. The images often blurred as the construct moved but it was the last images that had them fixated. The footage was slowed down and played again. The internal justices exchanged knowing looks, recognising the man in his last moments of life.

"He works for the Lady."

"Past tense."

For a moment no one spoke, absorbing the impact of what they were seeing. Pleased that their little spy was so effective but somewhat discomfitted by the identity of its' first victim.

"Why did he have to grab for it?"

"It was to all intents and purposes an insect, something irritating buzzing near his ear. It was automatic, done without thought."

"Well, there'll be no thinking about it now."

The first justice mulled over this new information. "Do you think she knows?"

"*Bu qu*. The Lady never leaves her place of power. Chou was her eyes and ears in the wider 'verse. By the time she realises something is *cuode* it will be too late for her to act or interfere even supposing she might want to."

The third justice frowned. "You would do well not to dismiss her influence."

The second justice smiled disingenuously. "Influence after the fact is no influence at all. What will she know? *Yiwusuoyou*. No, as much as the loss will upset her she cannot afford to show herself. She has too much to lose."

"But her *zhangfu*..."

"Is another matter entirely."

The fourth justice pursed his lips, not liking where this could go. "Do you think he will come after us?"

The second justice gave a dry brittle unfunny laugh that grated on all their ears. "For that to happen she would have to reveal her own involvement and that would never happen. What he doesn't know cannot hurt her. No gentlemen, we have nothing to fear from him and by the time she attempts to put the pieces together there will be nothing for her to find."

* * * * *

General Wallace answered the wave more than a mite distracted. They had found five of the chambers in the same condition as the one Sgt Ford had found. The holding area was already cleared and evacuated then the ship had gone into lockdown. It was with a heavy heart that Wallace listened to the incoming wave.

"General," snapped Commandant Urquart impatiently "you were supposed to have taken off by now. What is the reason for the delay?"

"There has been a complication, *shifu*."

The Commandant hissed through his teeth, clearly unhappy. "*Jieshi*!"

General Wallace explained the problem and when asked what he had done to contain it informed Urquart that the ship had gone into lockdown. The hold was effectively sealed off from the rest of the ship but given that they did not know what was eating through the hermetically sealed chambers he could not guarantee that it would be enough. He requested urgent assistance.

"You will have all the aid you need, General. Do not allow anyone to leave the ship and do not take off until given clearance to do so, *dong ma*? We need to eliminate any threat to the rest of your crew. Whatever it is must not be allowed to spread."

"*Wo dong*, Commandant."

As the communication ended General Wallace felt a sense of relief. For his part, Commandant Urquart did not hesitate to deal with the unexpected with the maximum prejudice giving the order to begin dispersal of the biotech immediately. Maximum dispersal. His officers only hesitated for a fraction of a second before carrying out the imperious command, the Alliance Dreadnought moving into position. Urquart leaned forward the better to observe the operation and monitor the result. The warring triads below would not know what hit them and neither would anyone else. The fact that General Wallace and his crew would be among the casualties was little more than a technicality caused by necessity. This was no longer simply a test of the biotech system but a clean up operation. Only the outcome was important: no survivors.

* * * * *

The small sleek vessel arrived without fanfare on Osiris. The Operative had been assured that this was the location the Hunter had been traced to though no further information had been forthcoming for many hours now. He did not like gaps in information. Like a net with too many holes in it the target could slip right through. The gaunt man beside him did not speak, hollow eyes staring yet seeming to see things he could not.

"You had better be right about this."

The man barely turned his head. "We will find him."

The Operative wanted to ask how but knew his curiosity would not be indulged and did not want to appear weak. "I must recover what he has taken, *dong ma*?"

A blue gloved hand fluttered briefly as if to dismiss the Operative's concern. A second man joined them, as like to the first as two peas in a pod. Both men wore plain black suits, white shirts and black ties. To the Operative's mind they looked more like undertakers than special agents of the Blue Sun Corporation. The first one turned his head and stared at him.

"He is on the move again."

The Operative raised an eyebrow and waited. Almost it seemed as if the man was sensing the Hunter then he looked at his companion and without another word both men turned away from the Operative to disembark from the ship.

* * * * *

Kaylee was upset. She had been so excited to have located the trackers and the inhibitor fixed to Serenity's engine but nobody seemed to take much notice and once she realised why her heart quailed. How could the Captain be getting worse? He hadn't even shaken hands with the purplebellies. It didn't make sense. Now Zoe was talking about putting the Captain in the airlock just in case and that was so many kinds of wrong that she couldn't stop the tears. Inara found her sitting in her hammock in the engine room her eyes puffy and red from crying, her tear stained cheeks tugging at the Companion's heartstrings. "*Mei mei*, I've been looking for you. *Shenme shi*?"

Serenity's mechanic shook her head, the very picture of misery. "It ain't fair, 'Nara, he's supposed to be gettin' better. *Wo bu dong*."

Inara carefully settled on the hammock beside her friend. "I don't understand either but I'm sure Simon will figure it out."

"But what if he don't?" She wailed, all the pain and fear almost choking her. "Ya heard Zoe, they're gonna stick him in the AIRLOCK! He's the Cap'n an' they're just gonna fire him into the Black!"

"*Rongyi* Kaylee, that is not what is going to happen."

"Then why stick him in there, huh? Don't have to be Top Three Per Cent to see what they're thinkin'."

Inara turned carefully, not wanting to move too suddenly and toss them both out of the hammock. When she was facing her friend she put her hands on Kaylee's shoulders and looked her in the eye. "Have I ever lied to you, *mei mei*?"

Kaylee looked confused. "What does that have to do with...?"

"Have I?"

She shook her head. "*Bu qu*, course not."

"Then believe me now when I say no one is going to jettison the Captain out of the airlock, *dong ma*?"

"They ain't?"

"No, Kaylee, they are not. It's just that the airlock has the best shielding and it is airtight."

"Then he'll suffocate."

Inara fought the urge to smile. "Only if we vent the air and that is not going to happen. Mal is going to be put in there only if Simon fails to find a way to reverse what is happening. I don't claim to understand any of this, Kaylee, but I trust Simon and there is no one more protective of the Captain than Zoe."

Kaylee sniffed. "So why put him in there if he's still sick?"

"To protect the rest of us." At the look on Kaylees' face, Inara put an arm around her friend and hugged her gently, making sure to still keep eye contact with her.

"We don't know why Mal's been getting worse only that it happened when the Alliance boarded, Simon thinks the dust they had on their unforms and boots may have either aggravated the Captain's condition or sparked off a complication. Either way there's no telling whether or not it is contagious to the rest of us." "Yeah, well if it was why ain't none of us took sick?"

"That's a very good question."

Two pairs of eyes looked in surprise towards the doorway where Shepherd Book was standing. The Shepherd didn't step inside, not wanting to crowd them in the small space of the engine room.

"I don't think it's contagious."

Kaylee's face started to brighten up.

"Not sayin' I know what is wrong but no one else has become sick especially Simon. If anyone was going to catch anything it would be the doctor so I think we can rule out any talk of putting the Captain in the airlock."

The mechanic beamed at him then grinned at Inara. "Told ya."

But Inara was not looking at Kaylee, she was staring at Book. The man made no move to leave.

"Simon was askin' if you could give him a hand, Kaylee."

Kaylee opened her mouth then closed it, her brain trying to make sense of that sentence. "I ain't no doctor."

The Shepherd's lip twitched, his eyes twinkling a little in amusement. Inara tried to pry more information out of him. "Does Simon know what is wrong with the Captain?"

"Not as such but I think he wants to test a theory."

Puzzled, Kaylee eased herself off the hammock. "An' Simon wants me?"

"I understand you have 'natural talent'." Said the Shepherd, not trying to hide his amusement now. As Kaylee went to hurry passed him, Book put a hand out. "Best you bring your tools."

The look on Kaylee's face was priceless. Behind her, Inara was just as mystified. What did Simon think Serenity's mechanic could accomplish that one of the best trauma surgeons in all of Osiris could not?

* * * * *

It was invisible, not even a mist, yet it reacted automatically with anything and everything it came into contact with. The people succumbed first, an odd piercing lethargy shooting ultra fine ribbons of pain through the nervous system. Li Way Lin, the Red Pole of the White Lotus triad had been fighting without let through the ranks of the rival Tree of Heaven triad when his muscles cramped. His weapon slid from nerveless fingers as his mouth dropped open in shock and pain. The cry from his lips only just beating his physical fall from grace. His opponent looked behind him, trying to locate the assailant but all the other triad members were still fighting each other, some falling in similar fits of agony with not a mark upon them. Alarmed and unsettled, Chin Yu took a step back, eyes wide and wary but not even one of the thousand heroes of old could fight an unseen enemy that struck without warning.

Within their shacks, the miners and other workers on Ithaca Moon kept back from the windows lest any of the triads realised they were being observed and decided to butcher the witnesses. They need not have worried. By the time David Han peeked out behind a shutter not a man was still standing. Confused and worried, he noticed something even odder. From a clear blue sky, the fallen lay in awkward heaps with their limbs at impossible angles as if they were boneless. It made no sense. He called Rick Miez over and the other workmen crowded around behind them to see what all the fuss was about. As they stared at the scattered mounds of bodies the air around the dead men seem to shudder, just a little, but as it did so a very fine mist like dust puffed up and dispersed. They exchanged worried glances. What in the nine hells was that and what did it mean? Hardy Waters moved towards the door, ready to unlock and unbolt it as he grabbed his rifle.

"Best go see what the good gorram's goin' on."

Charlie Pond moved quicker than any of them had seen him do before and blocked Hardy's path. "That ain't natural, Hardy."

"Which is why I'd best go take a look don't ya think?"

Charlie peered hard into his face. "You wanna be next, that it?" He stepped back, a sour look on his face. "Go, get! Be a gorram hero but ya'll be dead as them ya take a foot outside."

No one moved. Hardy was torn between his curiosity and need to know what the *diyu* had happened and his natural instinct for self preservation. It didn't take long for him to realise Charlie was right, with a nod he walked back to rejoin the others. Charlie was about to do the same when the door shuddered. It wasn't much, just a tremble, but he was right near it and saw what the others missed. His face turned away from them as he stared wide eyed at the impossible as little puffs of mist like dust rose from the bottom of the door as something too small to see ate away at metal, wood and concrete making a hole at the bottom of the door that spread as he watched. Leaping back in alarm he tried to warn the others but what could he say? What words could describe such a thing? And how could you hide from something that you couldn't see but which could strip flesh and bones into dust so fine it kind of evaporated in front of the eyes and did the same to buildings too?

"Charlie? What in the nine hells is wrong with ya?"

As Charlie turned his head to try to answer his muscles bunched up and cramped sending ultra fine needles of pain like shockwaves through his nervous system. With a truncated cry his body crumpled to the ground as his body began to cave in on itself. The bedlam of panic in the shack momentarily diverted them from the fact that where the door had once stood solid, locked and barred now stood a gaping hole. A fine puff of mist like dust settling on the door jambs and eating through the rest of the superstructure as one by one the rest of the workers scrambled to try to escape their crumbling failing bodies before the gorram roof fell in.

* * * * *

The Lady was concerned but hiding it. Why wasn't Chou answering any of her calls? It was so unlike him that she called her major domo. Matthew James Wong bowed, immediately realising something was wrong.

"*Shenme shi*, my Lady?"

"*Wo bu zhidao*. Chou is not answering."

To her consternation Wong hesitated before asking a question, his words oddly tentative. "Is he still on Ithaca Moon, my Lady?"

She frowned. What did that matter? When she nodded his reply was not what she expected. The shock of it robbed her of any response long after the cortex link went dark.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*shifu* = sir *wode ma* = mother of God *bu keneng* = impossible *mashang* = at once/on the double/immediately *zhangfu* = husband *dong ma* = understand? *shenme shi* = what's the matter? *diyu* = hell *ni zhide shi shenme* = what do you mean? *bao bei* = precious/treasure *bu qu* = no (lit. no go) *cuode* = wrong *yiwusouyou* = nothing *jieshi* = explain *wo dong* = I understand *mei mei* = little sister *wo bu dong* = I don't understand *rongyi* = easy *wo bu zhidao* = I don't know


Saturday, September 29, 2012 7:21 AM


Hmm. The dust afflicting Mal seems to be different from the dust affecting the miners and the gangs. Or maybe he wasn't exposed to as much.

Figures that the Alliance's response is kill them all though.

Saturday, September 29, 2012 8:39 AM


Found a small spelling error.

At first he though the man

I think you meant,

At first he thought the man

Saturday, September 29, 2012 10:17 AM


You will find more about the dust soon, Bytemite, and yes you are right, that is a typical response from the Alliance to just kill everyone. Thanks for picking up the dropped 't' Nutluck, am now off to correct that. Was sad you had nothing to say about this chapter though so no idea if you even liked it. Appreciate the feedback, Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"

Saturday, September 29, 2012 7:58 PM


I always like your stuff. But I am sure by now most of you know I am one for few words normally. I have been pondering what River was up too.

Sunday, September 30, 2012 2:53 AM


Some of that will be partially answered in the next chapter, Nutluck. Thank you for the feedback, it puts a smile on my face. Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"

Sunday, October 7, 2012 7:02 AM


Ok that mist scares the diyu outta me!! Simon will be taxed before this saga is complete, I'm thinking, going on the next chapter immediately, xiexie AliD

Sunday, October 7, 2012 7:02 AM


Ok that mist scares the diyu outta me!! Simon will be taxed before this saga is complete, I'm thinking, going on the next chapter immediately, xiexie AliD

Sunday, October 7, 2012 7:34 AM


damn sorry posted twice but that mist REALLY scares me :))

Sunday, October 7, 2012 9:23 AM


No problem, MalsDoxy, it IS scary! Thank you for the shiny feedback, Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"

Wednesday, November 14, 2012 6:07 PM


Back to reading again, after a break. (Family matter and trying to sort out my own writing.) I have some catching up to do, Ali! Sorry for not reviewing for such a long time.
I am much concerned about Mal's condition, but it seems to me that maybe Simon has made a discovery, and Book seems to know about it. Can't wait to see what Kaylee's role is in this.
Meanwhile, the Operative is now giving a lift to the Hands of Blue? Whoa, wonder what's next.
I do not, not, not like this dust! Will anyone live to tell the tale? That Urquart is a monster.
I'm thinking the Lady is going to get more actively involved soon.


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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.