COUNTDOWN TO CHRISTMAS: 24. "Trail of the Beast"
Saturday, March 26, 2005

"Zoe discusses what they are going to do. The Captain unaware that his long-time friend is about to take a leaf out of his 'stupid' book."



SUMMARY: "Zoe discusses what they are going to do. The Captain unaware that his long-time friend is about to take a leaf out of his 'stupid' book." The usual disclaimers apply. The characters and 'Firefly' are the property and gift of Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy. No infringement of copyright is intended.


A "Firefly" story

Written by Alison M. DOBELL

* * * * *

It was an unusual step but Zoe did not feel right discussing her plan on Serenity. Best leave the Captain with Sarah and the doc. Monty gave her a grim look but said nothing. Kaylee wanted to stay on Serenity but Zoe shook her head. Frank Reynolds spoke before Shepherd Book could volunteer his assistance. "I'll stay on the ship, Zoe."

Jayne looked like he had eaten something very sour. No one was quite sure whether it was the thought of that *tamade hundan* Niska or the idea of going after the bits of him scattered in the Black. Zoe looked relieved but did not relax. "*Hen hao*." She glanced at Kaylee's parents. "You sure you're alright with this?"

Mrs Frye nodded then led them off the ramp and towards the house. Aunt Jessica looked up from the kitchen range and her eyes widened at the sight of so many people but quickly adjusted, adding more cold water to the kettle already heating on the stove. Some griddle cakes were stacked just to the side of the stove, the scent of cinammon making Jayne's mouth water but they were not offered around. Disappointed he hooked a chair with his boot and pulled it out from the table to sit down. Everyone found a place and by the time the water had boiled Zoe had outlined her plan and Jayne had lost his appetite.

"Cap'll throw a fit." Jayne grumbled into his mug. "It's dumb."

Inara shook her head slowly. "I don't think the Captain's in any condition to throw anything, Jayne."

"*Wo bu dong*," Said Wash, repeating a theme from his earlier conversation with Zoe. "We all saw that place blow, Niska's gotta be dead."

"Like I said before *zhangfu*, Niska's a careful *wangba dan*. He would have planned this out in minute detail. No way can I see him doin' this an' not havin' a back up plan."

"Ya mean like bein' able to breathe oxygen in atmo without a suit?"

Zoe glared at the mercenary without responding then looked at the others. "We just have to figure what it was an' go from there."

"An' if we can't find anythin'?"

"Then Kaylee, we get to thinkin' that maybe - just maybe - the *tamade liumang* is dead." She paused, everything she said being in deadly earnest. Zoe wanted her next words to really sink in. "But either way we need proof people. Without it we forever sleep with one eye open, *dong ma*?"

As everyone muttered their agreements Jayne mumbled to himself, "Always do."

* * * * *

Mal had no idea how long he dozed in the chair. Time had become a meaningless concept to him. The light touch on his face jerked him awake then he simply froze. Totally unaware that Simon was across the room watching. "Sarah? *Bao bei, ni hao ma*? You scared the livin' *diyu* outta me."

She looked pale but breathing was a plus. "Mal, *duibuqi*, I..."

He never let her finish, recognising only too easily the guilt in her eyes. Had seen a similar look too many times staring back at him from his gorram mirror. No self recrimination allowed on his boat. "Hush, you're safe now." He whispered gently. Her eyes wide and not quite believing that he could so readily forgive her for such a wicked and heinous crime. Against him. Against the baby. Gorrammit, he should have just left her to die. But the love lightening the darkness in his eyes trapped her, their depths connecting her to the soul of him. "Not nobody got no call to punish you, *xin gan*. You done that your own self."

Tears began to fill her eyes. "You should hate me, Mal. What I did..."

He was so gentle with her. Simon was mesmerised, recognising the calming tone in the Captain's voice from the many times the man had soothed his sister. Seeing it work on his traumatised patient he relaxed a little. Mal gently brushed the curtain of hair from her eyes and dropped little kisses onto her face, all the while talking, telling her how precious she was to him and how nothing like this would ever happen again. He would be there, look after her, every step of the way. But much as she devoured his words, his assurances and very presence it was not what she needed. Wanted, yes. Needed, no. She needed help of another kind.

"I took a life, Mal..."

"I know that, *xin gan*, an' that's gonna haunt us both for a goodly while I'm thinkin' but what's done is done. We gotta get passed this . On'y time we got in this 'verse is now an' ain't gonna squander it with might-have-beens, *dong ma*?"

She smiled at him then. Nobody mangled the spoken word better than Mal. *Wode ma* how she loved him! He gave her a little frown and tried to sound annoyed.

"What the good gorram a man gotta do round here to get a kiss?"

The smile on her face widened then she kissed him, exhulting as his arms drew her into his warm strong embrace, the kiss so gentle but full of promise. He was careful not to go any further even when she clung to his shirt, her eyes begging for him to take away the memories, wipe the slate clean by loving her. He knew what she was seeking and just as surely knew that was not the way to get it. Besides, he wanted her to heal. Rest. Regain the peace that she had lost and let his love put her back together again. Zoe had done it for him once. Long, long ago. And on a bloodier field than this. Not that the folks he'd killed were innocents exactly and it was War but it had been his first major engagement. The first time his faith in the Almighty had hesitated and the lines between right and wrong had blurred. It had troubled him for days. Days that had turned into weeks and even back then they didn't have time for none of that *goushi*. Bits of kids dying left, right and centre and him about to lose it all while every officer worth a damn was picked off around him.

Oh, he knew the kind of nightmares that would make demons weep. Not that he would ever share any of them with Sarah. Then Simon appeared at his elbow. Rutting *diyu*, where in the nine hells had he come from?

"Sarah, I need to check you over."

Sarah looked from Mal to Simon then back to Mal again. The Captain gave her a nod of reassurance and thanked whatever providence had brought the doc and his sister on to his ship. Man was a certifiable genius, not that he would ever tell him. He moved back a pace to stay out of Simon's light and watched while the doctor checked the dilation of her eyes, her temperature and pulse. Carefully he checked her over making sure the wound was knitting together properly. When he finished he gifted them with a satisfied smile.

"You'll be happy to hear that there are no signs of infection and the wound is healing nicely."

"When can I get out of here?"

It was not exactly the thank you he had expected. Simon resisted the urge to roll his eyes and tried to blank out the grin on the Captain's face. It seemed impossible that the man could have such a deleterious effect on the woman in such a short time. But then not much in the 'verse could prepare a body for Malcolm Reynolds. "Not until I say so. You'll be here for the next few days but it's up to you whether we're talking days or weeks."

Sarah looked horrified. "Weeks?"

"If you do as your doctor tells you and stay here and let your body rest and heal you may be well enough to be released to your room. If you fight me on this or decide to get difficult it will be a lot longer."

If Sarah thought the Captain would support her escape bid she was much mistaken. "It's a good deal, Sarah, I'd take it."

The doctor raised an eyebrow but the Captain didn't see it. Feeling suddenly weary, Sarah aborted her notion of resisting doctor's orders. "Okay an' *xie xie ni*. You saved my life, Simon."

He just nodded, unable to speak passed the knot in his throat. Oh yes, he had saved Sarah from bleeding to death but he had been unable to save the baby. He did not like the fact that he had innocent blood on his hands even if he was not the one who had spilt it. When he looked up it was to see Sarah lying back with her eyes closed. She had drifted off to sleep. But the ship's Captain was wide awake and staring straight at him. "Yeah, doc, not got words to thank you my own self."

"You just did."

The Captain blinked then realised what he had said. Before he could ask the question forming in his mind, Simon surprised him by pre-empting his concern. "You can sleep in here while Sarah recovers providing you do nothing to encourage her to leave before I'm happy she's ready."

Mal nodded. "I can do that."

Simon watched the Captain turn back to his charge, lean over and drop a tender kiss on her forehead. "You really love her, don't you?" He said softly.

"Yeah," Said Mal, trying not to drown in the emotion welling up from his heart and keep his voice steady. His eyes never leaving Sarah's sleeping face. "Yeah, I really do."

* * * * *

It felt odd to Wash not to be flying. Well, he *was* flying but not *flying*. The determination to go with Zoe and the others after Niska had been as automatic as taking his next breath. That *wangba dan* had taken something from him, something he could never have back, and he would pay for that. Pay for what he put the Captain through not to mention all the worry and heartache affecting the crew. Even Jayne had come with them on this ludicrous mission of vengeance and yet he couldn't fiind it in himself to be sorry. On Earth-That-Was there had been tales of rabid dogs who ran the streets, foaming at the mouth and taken by some kind of madness that ate into their brains. Made the animals mean as *diyu* and deadly dangerous. Only way to treat them was with a bullet to the brain. Niska was like one of those dogs and they were going to hand deliver the gorram bullet that would end his sickness. For once and for all. A hand on his arm brought him back to the Here and Now.

"Sweetie, you alright?"

Wash blinked and gave his beautiful wife a smile. "*Qu*, just thinkin' about..." His voice trailed off, the smile vanished into the Black. "You know, Niska."

Being on a Kingfisher was nothing like being on a Firefly. For a start the vibrations were different, the feel of the ship under the running plates was alien to him though being in the air was always a comfort. Wash had not been born to be land-bound. Sure, visits to reconnect with a planet every now and then were shiny but only because it would make his next journey into the Black that much sweeter for his momentary absence. He supposed some people might call it a sickness but for him it was the cure. "How much farther?" That was Shepherd Book.

Monty and Zoe put their heads together, looking over Zack's shoulder as he piloted the vessel. Retracing the route the cryo chamber had taken, the tiny hidden transmitter sending back an accurate trail of breadcrumbs until the bomb had been triggered when they opened the lid. The transmissions had ended abruptly. X marked the spot. Sometimes it was scary how gifted River was. How had she known not only what would happen but also what to do? But no one was complaining now. Her gift could be their salvation because if Niska had somehow managed to engineer his own escape he would keep on coming, as relentless as those rabid dogs from Earth-That-Was. Monty checked something with Zack then nodded and tapped the screen, his eyes on Zoe. "Should be gettin' real close now. Not sure what you hope to find."

"Debris would be good."

"Bodies would be better." Added Jayne.

No one had a comment to add to that. It was what they were all thinking. All hoping for. Zack interrupted their reverie with a word of caution to Monty. "How close do you want me to bring you in? There is some debris ahead but it's hard to tell of what and once we reach it we will be within scanning range of the medical facility."

Zoe straightened and instead of answering turned and looked straight at the Shepherd. "What do you think, Shepherd? He still in there or did he get blown to pieces when the bomb went off?"

They were all looking at him now but nothing rocked the man's calm exterior. "Why ask me?"

"I think you know why. All those times that magic card of yours had the Alliance runnin' to bring you aid or leave you alone. Now the Cap'n an' I have been patient an' normally I wouldn't be pressin' this but we need to know if Niska is still on that station."

He raised an eyebrow. His control almost as good as Inara's. "What do you expect me to do?"

She took a couple of steps towards him then stopped. You could have heard a pin drop. "Suppose you tell me?"

Meanwhile Zack was scanning the debris field and taking readings of the dispersal, density and content. He looked at Monty. "Sir, that debris contains human remains."

Every eye broke off from Zoe and Book and looked back at the pilot. Zack gave a little helpless shrug. "The pieces though are too small to identify even by gender. All I can tell you is that at three people died, perhaps more."

Zoe was not to be put off. "Can we scoop some of it up?"

Zack looked horrified. Kaylee put a hand over her mouth.

"Why ya wanna do that?" Grumbled Jayne.

"Because Simon can do a DNA analysis. Find out if any of... that," She waved outside. "Is Niska."

"And if it isn't?" Asked Book carefully.

"Then we'd be left with only one option."

Zoe was looking at the medical complex. Silence fell so heavily it was almost oppressive.

"We come back and blow that place to *diyu*."

Johnny Carr was leaning on the door frame next to Jayne. He looked less than impressed. "You any idea what it would take to blow a place that big?"

"We don't have to blow the place up." Said the Shepherd thoughtfully.

Everyone turned to look at him in surprise. Zoe was frowning. Then River smiled and spoke up as if solving a not so difficult puzzle. "Decompression."

As big and futuristic as the medical facility was, it was pretty much a complex of pressurised tin cans in space tacked on to a small empty moon. Which meant it was probably set up to compartmentalise section by section in the event of a breach in containment. It would be like trying to suck the air out of a honeycomb. They wouldn't get very far. Zoe said as much. The Shepherd shook his head. "The critical systems like everything else on that station will be electronically controlled. Everything from heat and light to life support."

"What're you sayin'?" Zoe asked.

"It's just a computer." Explained River brightly. "Can only do what you tell it to do."

"So are you sayin' we hit the computer?"

The Shepherd nodded. "Yes. But not to attack or take it out."

"Just have to fool it long enough to remove all the air." River explained with a widening smile. "The computer's just a brain but mine is bigger."

Kaylee shuddered. There was something very disconcerting about seeing that look on her best friend's face as she calmly talked about killing dozens if not hundreds of men and women in the sick pursuit of just one man. But was it sick? No. The sick one was Niska not them. So why didn't that bring her any comfort?

* * * * *

Mrs Frye was not happy. Her husband tried in vain to calm her down. "They know what they're doin', *fengmi*."

She paused to look at him. "Do they? What the good gorram they doin' takin' Kaylee with 'em? She ain't no soldier, Martin."

He swallowed. Hated playing the Devil's Advocate but what could he do? He could see both sides of the coin and Kaylee no longer lived at home. It wasn't like he could lay the law down any longer. "They don't strike me as *baichi*."

His wife looked tired. Worried. Martin Frye put a gentle hand on her shoulder and coaxed her into sitting down then pulled a chair alongside her. They were sitting in the kitchen again. It was beginning to feel like they never left this room.

"An' what about Sarah?"

Mr Frye blinked. "What about her?"

"Ya know she ain't stayin' don't ya?"

Where in the nine hells had that come from? "*Fengmi*, that girl's goin' nowhere."

She sighed. "It ain't fair. All them troubles an' so few happy times."

He put an arm around her shoulder and pulled her close. "Don't you go underestimatin' the Cap'n or that crew of his."

"*Ni bu dong*. That girl ain't gonna settle. If for no other reason than the guilt of what she done." "Mal will put things right, just you wait an' see *fengmi*. Not nothin' for us to be worryin' about, *dong ma*?"

She fell silent, thinking back to only days before when things had been so different. So very shiny. Made her heart ache something fierce. Slowly she pulled herself together and realised there was one thing she could do. "Do you realise Martin Frye that all that crew got to live on is protein bars and dry fare?" At his blank look she gave a little smile and he relaxed his hold on her, wondering what the good gorram she would say next. "I may not be able to stop 'em doin' foolish things but I can make sure they eat right."

Martin laughed and hugged her. It took a few minutes before they untangled themselves and got up. She nodded towards the cinnamon griddle cakes. "Best be takin' some of those. We got more produce than we can eat even if helpin' 'em out gives us leaner pigs. Might make the bacon a mite tastier."

"Don't think Jayne would argue with that."

Mrs Frye laughed. She liked Jayne. Big, bluff and uncomplicated. What you saw was what you got. But he wasn't shallow either and that was the part that gave him his worth, a bright spark of intelligence masquerading as indifference. Until push came to shove he was just a hired hand. A thug with a gun. But when the shove came all kinds of revelations were like to drift to the surface. Yep, the Captain had picked him a shiny crew now she was about to prove that Kaylee's folks were every inch their equal. The money Mal had given them for the fuel had more than covered what they had spent and the funds for the Christmas treat were barely half used up. She knew he would take nothing back but she could be stubborn too. By the time she finished with Serenity's stores they wouldn't need to touch down for more'n a month if they didn't want to and would still have food to eat without havin to catch it on the hoof first. And with neither of them beholden to the other either. Had a kind'a rightness to it.

"He ain't gonna like this."

Mrs Frye laughed, rolled up her sleeves and got to work with the pots and pans. "You leave Malcolm Reynolds to me, *zhangfu*. Ain't a man been born than can best a woman when she's a mind to get her way. Now, I'm bettin' that *wangu* Cap'n ain't ate a morsal since Sarah got back. A good thick broth should put him to rights an' it'll be somethin' easy enough for Sarah to eat her own self. While I'm busy I want ya to go over to Serenity an' tell Simon to bring 'em over to the house. If all the doc's needlework is done I'm thinkin' restin' Sarah in a proper bed'll help heal her quicker than bein' stuck on a hard narrow bed in that cold infirmary of his."

Martin opened his mouth to protest then caught the look in her eye. Sensibly he closed his mouth again and just nodded. A wise man knew when to pick his battles. This would be one he would never win.

* * * * *

In the end they opted for River's plan. Kaylee sighed with relief, happier than she could say that they would not be extracting bits of blood and gore from the vacuum of space. Although it would have given Simon something to process back on Carousel all it would do would give them DNA for those they found in the debris field, or rather the bits of them. It would not be able to confirm that those they found were the only casualties. The force of the explosion would have dispersed the remains over quite a large area. It could take days to locate all the fallout. Days they did not have. Right now they were on the edge of Alliance sensors. Even darting into the field to secure debris would leave them vulnerable to detection. Therefore they decided River was right. They needed not to take out the computer but fool it, cause the operating system to do their dirty work for them.

Wash nodded as he listened and waited for a lull in conversation. "What happens now?"

River gave them a serene look. "I find a way in then code a new set of instructions into the main computer. For the good of the 'station'. It will become the primary protocol."

The mechanic's eyes widened in alarm. "But you can't do that, it's too dangerous! They'll find you an'..."

It was the Shepherd who calmly explained. "*Fang xin*, Kaylee. I think what River means is that she will tap into their computer system - hack into it not board the station itself."

A look of relief flooded Kaylee's face. Zoe though was not smiling.

"Surely the moment life support is affected the fail safes will kick in and we'll be back to square one?"

"Not exactly." Said River with a slow smile. Jayne frowned. "Why not?"

"Because protecting the station will become the default primary function."

* * * * *

Sirius Research Station was the flagship of the Alliance covert operations. Funded by the Blue Sun Corporation and fronted by bone fide Core interests within the Alliance of Planets it appeared to be the epitomy of legitimate medical advancement. The finest research facility in this sector of the 'verse but most of its' serious work was kept under wraps. The level of sercurity so high no one on the Alliance Oversight Committee had authorisation to even step aboard let alone take a look around. A handful above Committee level did. When dignitaries came to view the station it was a carefully stage managed affair, letting the sponsors see enough to whet their appetities without realising just how far past the cutting edge this technology had gone. It was said that the dead kept the best secrets. Untrue. Sirius did.

An inner sealed door hissed then swung open. The small protected space within was like a vault only instead of money or precious jewels it contained a more subjective form of currency. A wheeze. A carefully re-established semblance of calm and control flowing first fitfully then with more confidence and strength as the bloodied figure rose to his feet. He was the only one in the tiny room. His glasses were gone but there were fine cuts to his face from flying glass. His clothes were ripped but he was surprisingly unharmed. Shaken not stirred. As he exited the vault-like room thin lips peeled back from a skeletal face showing uneven teeth in a death's head smile. "Impressive."

The tech in the white coat inclined his head in acknowledgement. "As I said, our facility is invulnerable."

Adelei Niska paused to take a couple of deep breaths. While not physically damaged his lungs were still catching up on the idea that he could now take full breaths. It was something of a pleasure to fill his paper-thin lungs with air leeched from the jaws of death. It envigorated him and the cold mirthless smile grew wider. "We have the body, yes?"

The tech blinked. Dr Muller thought he must have misheard. "There is nothing left of it. The explosion was high yield. You only survived because you were in the viewing chamber and our system of compartmentalised seals protected you in the seconds it took to remove you to a safer sealed vault just before we lost containment and jettisoned the surgical theatre."

Niska was not pleased. He had not had a chance to look inside the cryo chamber and gloat. It seemed Malcolm Reynolds, even in death, was going to remain at least one step ahead of him. No, he was not pleased. Not pleased at all.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*hen hao* = very good *tamade hundan*/*wangba dan* = fucking bastard *wo bu dong* = I don't understand *zhangfu* = husband *tamade* = fucking *liumang* = asshole/bastard/criminal/gangster *dong ma* = understand *bao bei* = precious/treasure *ni hao ma* = how are you? *diyu* = hell *diubuqi* = sorry *xin gan*/*ai ren* = sweetheart *wode ma* = mother of God *goushi* = crap/dog shit *xie xie ni* = thank you *qu* = yes (lit. go) *fengmi* = honey *baichi* = idiot *ni bu dong* = you don't understand *wangu* = stubborn *fang xin* = don't worry (lit. ease your heart)


Sunday, March 27, 2005 4:49 AM


Oh my. There I was relishing things getting back to normalish ... although my spider senses did start tingling when I read "Right now they were on the edge of Alliance sensors."

So, Niska survived? Only to meet a suitably painful and final end I hope!

Some bits I particularly liked:
- It seemed impossible that the man could have such a deleterious effect on the woman in such a short time.
- Wash had not been born to be land-bound..... He supposed some people might call it a sickness but for him it was the cure. = Very good on Wash. Slightly nuts. Slightly beyond the standard reaction. 'Fore him it was the cure' - I love that!

Sunday, March 27, 2005 4:50 AM


Oh and you'll notice I could wait until tomorrow to read this! ;-)

Sunday, March 27, 2005 7:14 AM


Scooping up brains is kind of gross. I am very releived it didn't go down that road.

I loved this chapter. I really hope River's plan works and Niska will finally end up dead.

I can't wait to read your next installment!! Great job, Ali!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011 8:02 PM


Niska has more lives than a gorram cat... Shinely written!!


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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.