Author's notes:

1. It should be noted that some time ago I gave up and said, 'screw the floor plan,' so if the layout or anything about this story makes your brain hurt, just try to ignore it.

2. Special thanks to all the 'loonies at the Serenity Saloon (Arlo, Pip, Nef, Scott, Mekadave, Sooner, Lux, Eric) without whom this story would certainly have still been written, but not with as much flare! Thank you.

3. The title is just a little nod to my other favorite TV show, Combat.

4. Dedicated to Adam Baldwin. Thank you for coming around the 'loon and talking to all us fans. We enjoy your humor and appreciate your opinions on ALL matters.

Disclaimer: I don't own these characters and probably wouldn't want to know them in real life. Anyway, please don't sue. I have nothing.

Rear Echelon Commandos

by Sersi & Cylla

Mal, Zoe and Jayne stepped out of their shuttle and onto a patch of sodden grass. Mal cast a quick look over the area, noting the water dripping from the nearby trees. They were clumped unnaturally close together, making for tricky landing.

Zoe let out a relieved sigh and stepped past the captain.

Mal looked offended. "Hey, I got us down, didn't I?"

"If you hear me screaming in my sleep some night, sir, don't let it concern you," she replied, glancing over her shoulder at him. "It'll just be me reliving that landing."

Jayne scowled as his boot sank into the mud. He glanced at Mal. "You know, it don't ever stop rainin' here."

"It ain't rainin' now," Mal said.

Jayne grunted. "Yeah, well . . . just give it time."

"Not gonna' be here long enough." Mal turned and shouted into the shuttle. "Let's go, people. We ain't here on a field trip."

Jayne frowned at him. "What's a field trip?"

Book and Kaylee exited the shuttle, each carrying a bag.

"It's a trip," Zoe said, as she passed Jayne, "made by school children to places of moderate historical interest."

"I never went on any field trip."

"That's because you didn't go to school," Mal said.

Jayne looked offended. "Did to . . . for awhile. . . ."

Mal raised his eyebrows at him, but decided against comment.

Nef paced the interior of the small shuttle in impatience, stepping over the bound Inara. She sighed in irritation and looked out the cockpit window.

Pippin came up behind her. "I miss our ship."

Nef rolled her eyes. "We were leakin' radiation into the space lanes. . . ."

"It was still ours," Pippin grumped. She folded her arms over her chest. "Now we got nothin'."

Nef turned on her. "It was a clunker. I'm just glad we made it this far."

Pippin glanced around. "Yeah, an' it's sooo thrillin' bein' here."

"Better than being cooped up on that floatin' deathtrap."

"You two better not be griping about the ship again," a voice behind them said.

The girls turned to see Arlo step into the room. He threw a grease-covered part onto the floor and wiped the back of his sleeve across his forehead.

"What's that?" Pippin asked.

"It's broke."

"Well . . . yeah. But what is it?"

He looked annoyed. "I don't know. Eric mumbled somethin' technical and said it'd take another hour to fit a new one."

The girls exchanged a quick look, then glanced at Inara.

"What if she called her ship for help?" Nef asked.

Arlo looked at Inara. "Did you?"

Inara fixed him with a look of distaste but kept silent.

"Want I should torture her some?" Pippin asked.

Arlo sighed and said, "No. If she didn't, then it don't matter. If she did, then they'll probably be here to get her in the next half hour or so. Either way, we can't do anything different." He turned to the open door. "Go relieve Dave and Sooner before they kill each other."

The girls picked up their rifles and stalked from the shuttle, Pippin mumbling to herself.

"And stop gripin' 'bout the ship!" Arlo called after them.

"Anyone else think it's awful coincidental, her shuttle crashing in the middle of nowhere?" Jayne asked, as the group slogged their way through even deeper and more clingy mud.

Mal sighed. "Yeah, I do. But, there ain't nothin' we can do different, now is there?"

"I'm just sayin', is all. . . ."

"Well, maybe you'd like to keep anymore of them statements of the obvious to yourself."

Mal sighed in annoyance. He didn't like the plan of tromping through the uncharted wilderness, even though it had been his idea. It was definitely too late to go with Jayne's preference of landing their shuttle right next to Inara's and damned be the trees, bushes, and the underside of their own shuttle.

Kaylee and Book plodded along behind them. Book had a hand on Kaylee's arm, steadying her, while they tried to carry on a conversation.

"So, you used to go hikin' lots, shepherd?"

"Yes. It was quite beautiful at the monastery."

"Miss it, huh?"


"That why you wanted to come with us today?"

He smiled. "Just thought I'd get a little exercise, is all," he said. "Don't see much sunshine in space."

Jayne grunted and glanced over his shoulder. "Ain't gonna' seen none here, either."

Mal shook his head. Zoe, on the other side of him, gave him a sideways look, a wry grin curling her lips.

"What's so funny?" Mal asked.

"Nothing, sir."

"Well, somethin's funny."

"Lots of things are funny, sir."

"You know, Zoe, sometimes I get the feelin' you know more than you're sayin'."

"Could be, sir."

Lux sat in the pilot's chair, his feet on the flight console.

"You're getting mud all over the controls," Inara said. She was still seated on the floor, her hands and feet tied.

Lux leaned back in the chair and gave her an exasperated look. "Sorry." He looked around. "I know you like to keep things real purty in here."

Inara rolled her eyes. "Those controls are delicate."

"'s that so?"

"Yes. I spilled mango juice all over them last month and had to take the whole thing apart before I could even get the nav computer on line."

Lux fixed her with an irritated look, then sighed and moved his feet.

A drop of rain hit the window. Lux chuckled.

Inara gave him a puzzled look.

"Pip and Nef are on guard duty," he explained. He whirled his chair around, a huge grin on his face. "They hate getting wet."

Mal stopped and peered through the trees. The tops were mangled and the ground was littered with leaves and broken branches.

"Look's like her shuttle came through here," Mal said, gesturing at the trees. "Can't be much further."

"Far enough," Jayne grumbled.

Mal ignored him. "Kaylee? How long you figure it'll take to fix her shuttle?"

Kaylee, leaning on Book's arm, struggled to keep moving. She felt like she was carrying an extra 20 lbs on each foot. "Uh . . . hard to say, Cap'n. From what 'nara said, it could be the regulator. She said somethin' 'bout the intake valves on the port exhaust, but she has a thing 'bout them anyway. They get clogged a lot and they're hard to clean out." She crinkled her brow. "I'm pretty sure it ain't the fuel lines. I replaced 'em a couple weeks ago. Might be the compressor, but that wouldn't make it shimmy around like she said. . . ."

"Okay, Kaylee," he interrupted. "Just give me an estimate when we get there."

Jayne stopped abruptly and glanced at the sky. A drop of water hit him on the cheek.

"Aw, hell. . . ."

Pippin brushed a palm over her face, wiping the water away. "I cannot believe our luck," she muttered. "Out here watchin' for hostiles while everyone else is sittin' around in the shuttle, keepin' warm and playin' cards."

"They ain't playin' cards."

"They might be."

Nef leaned forward. "You see somethin'?"

Pippin looked. "Rain."

Nef groaned. "Besides that."

"No. Ain't nobody gonna' be comin' after her. Even if she did call, they'd probably stay up on their ship 'til this rain let up." She snapped her sleeve, flinging water around. "I mean, what kinda' idiots go out in this weather?"

Mal stopped and leaned forward, resting his hands on his knees. The gentle sprinkle of moments ago had turned into a deluge of exasperating proportions. He turned slightly and glanced behind him.

The others had stopped and were standing around in various stages of fatigue. None of them were used to outdoor expeditions, and certainly not through inclement weather.

"We almost there?" Jayne asked.

Mal straightened and gestured at the trees. "Should be . . . just about over. . . ." He trailed off as he climbed a little higher, brushing water-laden branches aside.

Jayne watched him disappear. He shook his head. Kaylee came up beside him and staggered around a bit while she tried to get her balance.

Jayne grabbed her arm.

"Where's the Cap'n?"

"Off pickin' berries somewheres. . . ."

Kaylee smiled. "Don't be so grumpy. We're gettin' lots of fresh air."

He gave her an astonished look. "We're gettin' rained on."

She shrugged. "I love the smell of rain." She took a big whiff of the air.

Gunfire erupted from the other side of the hill and Jayne shoved Kaylee to the ground and drew his gun. He dropped onto his belly and crawled up the hill, kicking mud and water up behind him. He had to cover his head and roll out of the way as mal scrambled past him.

Jayne wiped mud from his face and eyed Mal, who was turning around to get into a better position. Zoe climbed up next to him.

"You see the shuttle?" Jayne asked.

"Yep. Been taken over by unfriendlies."


Mal looked over the group huddled behind him. "I reckon there ain't gonna' be any negotiating, so . . . Kaylee, you come up here next to Jayne." He gave Jayne a firm look. "You watch her."

Jayne nodded and helped Kaylee up next to him. He positioned her behind a tree and leaned against it.

"Shepherd, you come on up here," Mal said, gesturing to Book. "I'm gonna' move 'round a bit, see if I can make out what's goin' in the shuttle."

Twenty minutes later, the situation was a standoff. The downpour had reduced visibility to only half a yard. Mal and Zoe lay in the mud, taking shelter behind a clump of trees. Jayne crawled over to them.

"We need to get back to the ship," he said.

Mal looked irritated. "We can't.

"They ain't gonna' see us in this rain."

"I'm not leavin' her."

"You don't even know if she's still alive in there," Jayne protested, thumbing over his shoulder at the shuttle. It was almost twenty yards distant and the occupants were laying down an impressive amount of firepower when anyone got close enough.

Mal gave him a rigid look. "Get back to your position."

Jayne stared at him for several seconds, clearly weighing whether this was the time to jump ship. Eventually deciding it wasn't, he grumbled and crawled away.

Mal turned back to Zoe. After an uncomfortable minute of silence, he said, "You think she's still alive?"

"It's hard to say, sir. They must know that shuttle comes from a fairly large ship. It's gotta' be what they're after."

Mal considered that. "You think that's what this is all 'bout? They want to board us?"

"May be, sir."

Mal looked in the direction of the shuttle. He couldn't see through the downpour, but he knew if he stood up he'd know right quick where it was. 'They must have infrared on their guns to keep us pinned down like this.' Mal glanced around at his crew. 'Shoulda' been more prepared. Gotta' look into infrared. . . .'

"We're going to be out of ammo soon, sir."

"I know." Mal was quiet while he considered their alternatives. He turned on his back and examined the group.

Kaylee was next to Jayne, buried inside his coat. Mal briefly wondered what had prompted the sudden generosity from Jayne, but he quickly gave up the thought as trying to figure Jayne out was too strenuous. A few feet away Book was hugging the ground, trying to stay low enough to keep out of sight.

At least everyone was armed. Mal had implemented that little rule a few weeks back when Kaylee and Inara had been mugged on a simple shopping trip into town. They hadn't been hurt and had actually thought it somewhat funny. The true unpleasantness came when Jayne found out about it and went into town to settle things.

They hadn't expected a gunfight today, and no one had anything more impressive than a handgun. Jayne was particularly grumping, missing his Vera. Mal shook his head at the absurdity of the situation. A terrified mechanic, a shepherd, and a very disgruntled mercenary made up the bulk of his crack unit. At least he had Zoe. He glanced at her. She was hunkered down beside him.

"Uncomfortably familiar, ain't it Zoe?"

She smiled. "Yes, sir. But, we've been in worse situations."

He let out a short laugh. "I can always count on you to make things seem not quite as bad as they actually are."

"Just doing my part, sir."

Simon stepped onto the bridge. Wash was in his chair, drumming his fingers on the console, and staring at their guest.

"Maybe we should tie him up?" Simon suggested.

Badger leapt to his feet. "Hey now, that's not sociable, is it?"

Wash and Simon glanced at each other, then back to Badger.

"It's not my fault I'm stuck here with you lot." Badger glanced from one to the other, then sat down again, adjusting his hat unnecessarily. "Kidnapping is no way to advance friendly business relations, you know."

"We did not kidnap you," Wash said, testily.

Badger jumped to his feet again and pointed at the windows. "Does that look like Demeter to you?"

Wash and Simon gave the miserable little planet a quick look, then stared at Badger.

"You're the one who insisted on going with your cargo and keeping your beady, little eyes on it the whole way," Wash said.

"Yeah, well, detouring to this backwater planet weren't in our deal, mate," he said, jabbing a finger at Wash.

"So, you'll be a little late," Wash said, casually.

Badger gaped at him, then stomped around the bridge for a few seconds. Eventually he stopped and stared at Wash again. Wash stared back, a mixture of contempt and amusement on his face.

"I see you have absolutely no grasp of the mechanics of business," Badger said.

"I understand fine. What you don't understand is the Captain isn't going to leave any of his crew behind."

Simon looked at him strangely and Wash added, hastily, "Not unless he has a very good reason. And, you aren't a good enough reason."

"Wha - not good enough -" Badger clamped his mouth shut in frustration and went back to his pacing.

Wash groaned. "We'll get you to your rendezvous as soon as the others get back."

Badger rolled his eyes and continued to pace.

Inara lay on the floor, trying to keep out of everyone's way.

Pippin slumped against the wall. "I say we forget this thing an' take off for town."

"You been sayin' a lot of things lately," Nef mumbled. She fingered the trigger of her rifle, then peered through the cockpit window again.

"Only things need sayin'," Pippin grumbled.

Scott entered the cramped room and took in the situation. "Where's Arlo?"

"Boss done got a bee in his bonnet 'bout launchin' a flankin' maneuver," she answered. "He took Eric, Sooner, Lux and Dave 'an we ain't seen hide nor hair of 'em since they left."

Scott set his rifle on the flight console and dropped into the pilot's chair. "Great," he mumbled. "They'll probably all get killed and we still won't have transportation offa' this rock."

Nef looked at Pippin and Scott, shaking her head slowly. "You think you two could be a little more pessimistic, 'cause I'm not gettin' it."

Scott eyed her dispassionately. "Maybe we oughta' do a little more shooting. For distractin' purposes."

The sound of gunfire cut through the deluge, causing curses and a few screams. Bullets thudded into the mud around them, kicking up a spray of water wherever they hit.

After a minute, the barrage let up and Mal surveyed the group.

"Anyone hit?"

There were a few comments to the negative - Jayne adding a bit of colorful verbiage to his answer - while Kaylee remained silent.

"Kaylee, you okay?" Mal asked.

She didn't answer.


Jayne was on her in an instant, grabbing her and turning her on her side. "Kaylee?"

She was shaking, not all from the cold. "I . . . I . . . can't . . . we're gonna' die here, ain't we?"

"We ain't gonna' die," Jayne said, gruffly.

She continued shivering and staring at him.

"She all right?" Mal asked.

Jayne peered at her. "You ain't shot, are you?"


He nodded and turned loose of her. He gave her a final look and said, "We ain't gonna' die. You hear me?"

She nodded.

Mal crawled over to them. "They're trying to keep us pinned down here. Can't afford to have us get back to our shuttle and contact the ship."

"I think they're tryin' to flank us," Jayne said.

"Hard to do in this weather."

"It's what I'd do."

Mal sighed. "Yeah, me too."

Mal considered the situation while Jayne watched him intently. Eventually, he said, "Someone's gotta' get back to the ship."

"We ALL gotta' get back to the ship," Jayne said.

"We'd lose half just tryin' it."

"Better half than all."

Mal stared at him. "We ain't losin' anyone, and we ain't leavin' anyone behind, got it?"

"Yeah, I got it," Jayne grumbled, "but wishin' and doin' are two different things."

Mal glared at him, knowing he was right, but unwilling to accept it.

"I'm goin' back to the shuttle," he said. "I think I can make it."

Zoe gave him a worried look. "I don't think your chances are that good, sir."

"We gotta' get on the radio, contact Wash."

Zoe was silent a minute. "How will we know if you make it, sir?"

"I'll have him bring the Serenity down. Flood the shuttle with light. Can't miss that."

Jayne spoke up. "Just so's you don't do any 'o that floodin' over here."

Zoe glanced in the direction of Inara's shuttle. "That doesn't get Inara out of there, sir."

Mal considered. "No. But, maybe they'll be like to see reason once they're outnumbered and exposed."

Zoe nodded. "Be careful, sir."

"I will."

"Are we gonna' get this plan underway anytime tonight?" Jayne whispered. "'Cause, I don't think we've talked it to death yet 'an I got some things to say. . . ."

"Shut up, Jayne," Mal said. He turned to Zoe. "Best to stay right here. No sense makin' moving targets out of yourselves tryin' to get anywhere."

Zoe nodded again.

Mal crawled past her and stopped when he reached Jayne. "You keep an eye on Kaylee, you hear?"

Jayne looked offended. "I will."

"I mean it, Jayne. God help you if you show up at the ship without her. You understand me?"

A flash of anger crossed Jayne's face. "I ain't gonna' let nothin' happen to her."

Mal and Jayne exchanged a somber look, then Mal turned and disappeared into the rain.

The five would-be thieves struggled through the downpour, trying to keep low.

"This is such a bad idea," Lux mumbled. He turned to look over his shoulder at Sooner.

She was annoyed almost beyond endurance. She didn't like too much water. She didn't like the outdoors, she didn't like getting dirty, and most of all she didn't like most of her crew mates. She returned Lux's embittered look. If he told her just one more time to keep up, she might have to break something on him.

"Am I gonna' have to carry you?" he said.

She glowered at him, but picked up her pace.

In the lead, Arlo stopped and motioned for the others to do so, too.

Dave crawled up next to him.

"What do you think?" Arlo asked him.

"I think this is a bad plan."

Eric moved up to Arlo's left. "We had a good ship, you know, and you had to fly it through that space junk. I told you. . . ."

Dave shook his head. "Yeah, I seem to remember you saying something 'bout the pretty girls you were missing and how we needed to get there faster."

"Well I didn't tell you to sail through a heap of floating garbage like a drunkin' ape!"

Sooner moved up next to Dave, wiping her soaked hair from her face. "I think we should go back into town. Find someone to fix our ship. . . ."

Dave turned on her. "Ain't no one gonna' be able to fix the ship!"

Eric leaned around Arlo. "Hey, I told you I coulda' fixed that engine -."

Lux groaned. "The whole ship's full of radiation -!"

"That's because I wasn't there to contain it!" He looked at Arlo. "I told you I could fix it -."

"I think it can be fixed," Sooner said, looking at Eric. "I just don't think you can do it."

"I damn well can too!" He pushed himself through the mud to lean into her face. "If it weren't for all the panicking the rest of you were doing we'd have a ship right now!"

"No," Lux interrupted, "we'd be floatin' 'round the inside of the Ravager right now," he wiggled his fingers in the air, "runnin' into each other 'cause we couldn't see, body parts fallin' off, and listenin' to Sooner whine 'bout no air conditioning!"

"I do not whine!"

"I think you both whine," Eric said.

Arlo whirled on them. "That is it!"

The group clamped their mouths shut and stared at him.

"I've had it with the constant bellyaching!"

"We're just sayin'. . . ."

"You see this approximately 50 feet of space around me?" Arlo said, making a wide gesture with his arm, momentarily forgetting he was in hostile territory. "That is a no-whining zone! Got it?!" He aimed a finger at each of them. "The next one of you makes one ruttin' comment about the rain or the mud or the old ship, I'm gonna' rip your head off and beat the other three to death with it! Are we clear!?"

In the face of their leader's obvious anxiety, the crew chose to refrain from further comment. The five sat in awkward silence for nearly a minute, then Arlo started moving again.

"I thought we were there already."

Arlo didn't look back. "Sooner. . . ."

"Well, if I'd known it was this far, I wouldn't 'a come," she muttered.

Knowing he needed them for the moment, Arlo ground his teeth together and kept going.

Mal struggled through the downpour, wondering if he was still heading in the right direction. He was worried about his crew and his own well-being.

He only made it another few feet before gunfire exploded around him. He pushed himself backward frantically, and managed to get over a small incline. He tumbled over and lay against a tree, winded and trying to catch his breath. After a minute, he peeked over the edge.

More shots were fired, some of them coming dangerously close to his head. They exchanged bullets for a few seconds, and when the commotion died down Mal took a few calming breaths.

He thought over his options for a minute, which unhappily turned out to be only two - staying where he was and being perforated inside the next few minutes, or run for the shuttle.

He decided to make a break.

Jayne felt like he was soaked to the bone. He was shivering uncontrollably and unable to keep his gun steady, which worried him as his marksmanship could be jeopardized if he got the chance to shoot at anything again.

Mal should've reached their shuttle half an hour ago and brought the Serenity down at least fifteen minutes ago. Jayne was imagining the captain's bullet-riddled body lying in a ditch somewhere when he felt something on his back.

He jerked, startled by the abrupt contact.

"You're cold," Kaylee said.

"No, I ain't."

She ignored his obvious lie, opened her coat, and draped half of it over Jayne's back. She put her hand on his shoulder and leaned into him, trying to keep them both warm.

Jayne stiffened at her actions. A pretty girl that normally wouldn't touch him was snuggling up close to him. That was enough to kindle an uncomfortable warmness in his chest. If they got out of this alive, he'd be sure to remember this particular moment for the rest of his life.

Scott slammed the shuttle door closed and turned to Pippin.

"I can't see anything."

"Probably hiding." She crossed her arms over her chest. "It's what I'd be doin' right now."

Nef eased up to the cockpit window and peeked out again. She looked back at Scott. "We could rush 'em."

He gaped at her. "Rush 'em?" He shook his head. "Rush 'em? We can't even see them anymore."

"I don't like this waiting."

"I say we hold up here 'til morning," Pippin said, "then head back to town."

Scott and Nef stared at her.

"What?" She looked from one to the other. "Eric couldn't even fix this thing and -."

"That's because we didn't give him time." Nef gestured. "He had to go on the Great Flankin' Maneuver."

Pippin slumped onto Inara's bed. "They're probably all dead."

Jayne was thinking what he considered very unmanly thoughts about picking flowers and buying pretty dresses for a certain cute mechanic when Zoe whispered his name.

"Pay attention," she said.

"I am," he replied, indignantly.

"You looked like you were about to fall asleep."

"Well, I wasn't."

Zoe contemplated him for another few seconds, then said, "I think something's happened to the captain."

"You're just now comin' 'round to that idea?"

"I'm going after him."

"Now, that's ruttin' stupid. You can't help him and you'd be cuttin' our firepower down."

"If he didn't make it back, then Wash isn't on his way," she said, "and we're just sitting out here until we run out of ammo and they come and shoot us."

Jayne didn't say anything. She was right, and he didn't like waiting anyway.

Zoe said, "I'm going to see if I can help the captain."

"You're wastin' your time."

"Mine to waste."

After another twenty minutes and still no sign of the Serenity, it seemed fairly obvious to Jayne that no one would be flying in to rescue them. They needed a plan. Jayne turned on his back and surveyed what was left of the group.

Book and Kaylee were hunkered behind the same tree and neither looked ready to launch any kind of assault, let alone a defense if they were overrun.

Jayne groaned. Doing was what he was best at, not planning. He turned back and peered over the incline. There were enough trees to cover his approach if he decided to do the one-man up-the-middle routine. He thought about the problem, trying to look at it from every angle, but he just didn't have the patience for that kind of scrutiny. Simple plans were always the best. No sense muddying things up with too much thinking.

Jayne leaned toward Book and Kaylee and said, "I'm goin' to the shuttle."

"Excuse me?" Book said, then thought about it. "Which shuttle?"

Jayne thumbed over his shoulder. "'Nara's."

"I think that's a bad idea."

"We ain't got a better one, and no one's comin' to help us."

"You don't know that."

"Been too long, preacher." He ran a hand over his gun, checking the clip and making sure it was in good working order. He didn't like his guns getting wet. It wouldn't impede their efficiency, but it made more work later when he had to clean them. "You stay here with Kaylee. I'll come back for you if I can."

"I"ll go with you," Book said, grabbing his arm.

"I don't need the help."

"Yes, you do. You're outnumbered."

"They only been firin' two different guns the last twenty minutes," Jayne replied. "I think some of 'em are dead or out tryin' to flank us."

"They may be trying to fool you."

Jayne rolled over onto his stomach, cradling his gun. "Find out soon enough."

"Are we lost?' Sooner asked.

"We ain't lost." Arlo threw himself against a tree and eased around it, his rifle pointing the way. He didn't see anything familiar.

Dave rolled onto his back and looked at Sooner. "Can you stop complaining for one minute?"

"Me?" She pushed herself forward. "Who was that makin' them comments 'bout the mud gettin' in his pretty hair?"

"I don't got pretty hair!"

"Pip said you did."

"She -!" He reconsidered. "Did she?"

"Said you was too purty to be a mercenary. Got no time to be combin' your hair when people needs killin'."

Dave pushed his way over to her and leaned into her face. "High heels," he said, distinctly.

Sooner's face turned red and she went rigid. "That weren't my fault."

Dave raised his eyebrows.

"I was supposed to be schmoozin' the mark and makin' him like me -!"

"Which is where everything went wrong, you ask me," Dave mumbled.

"He did like me!"

"Right. You killed him with those heels. They still talk about it to this day."

"They do not!"

"Shut up!" Arlo screamed. "We're close and they can probably hear you."

Sooner and Dave glared at each other. "You go runnin' outta' the bar, him chasin' you, and you both fall down the stairs! You STABBED him in the neck with your heel. Anyway you look at it, it's YOUR FAULT!"

Sooner let out a shriek and jumped on him. He rolled over just as she landed, and wrapped both arms around her. They rolled through the mud for a few seconds, then pushed themselves up to their knees, still grappling with one another. Dave leaned down and yelled into her ear. "Wanna' play name that headlock!" His arm snapped forward, encircled her neck, and started throttling.

She let out a strangled, gurgling sound, and clawed at his arm. After only a few seconds, she'd had enough and punched him in the stomach.

"Whoopphh!" He bent double and she pulled her neck out of his grip and wrapped both hands around his throat.

Arlo turned around. "What the ruttin' -!"

Sooner was choking Dave with ferocious zeal, his head jerking back and forth like a broken rag doll.

Dave, quickly having enough of that, slapped a palm to her face and pushed.

Sooner, however, wouldn't let go and she continued throttling him.

Dave refused to budge, as well, and he planted both hands on her face and squeezed.

They both started screaming.

The outcome would forever remain in doubt, however, as Arlo and Eric jumped on both of them, quickly prying them apart.

Arlo stared at them in astonishment. "What the ruttin' hell is wrong with you two?!"

Sooner and Dave glared at each other, breathing hard and neither willing to comment.

"In case you haven't noticed, we're on a job here!" He leaned in close to both of them. "I got no time for this kinda' behavior! You two are gonna' be scrubbing the ship from stem to stern for the next six months if you don't knock it off! Got it?!"

Sooner looked at the ground and muttered, "Don't have a ship. . . ."

Arlo let loose a furious string of invectives, and leaned in close to her face. "I'm gonna' duct tape your mouth shut if I hear one more word about the ship. Understand?"


He looked each of them over, clearly looking for indications of further violence, then said, "I think their shuttle is up ahead."

Jayne made excellent time. He'd learned a long time ago to tolerate any type of terrain and to keep his bulk low to the ground. People got bits shot off them if they didn't. He stopped and peered through the rain. He could just make out the shuttle ahead. It hadn't exactly crashed, but it had obviously come down hard.

Jayne wormed his way to the shuttle, staying as low as he could, and keeping his gun out of the mud. Twenty feet from the shuttle, he stopped and listened.

Voices filtered through the open door. Jayne tried to catch what they were saying, but the rain destroyed any clarity and he had to settle for getting closer.

"Now we've lost Scott," Pippin said, throwing her arms in the air. She paced around the confines of the shuttle, irritated and worried.

Nef leaned around the open door. "Maybe he got 'em."

Pippin stopped. "Scott can barely shoot straight." She stood next to Nef. "He's probably laying in a ditch somewheres."

"You hear something?" Nef asked.

Pippin leaned toward the door.

"Careful," Nef said, grabbing her shirt and pulling her back.

Pip glared at her and stepped back. "I tell ya Nef, I'm gonna' find me a nice big, manly type guy, settle down, and raise a bunch of kids."

Nef rolled her eyes. "Where are you gonna' find a guy wants to marry you?"

"Hey," Pippin said, offended, "I got appeal."

Nef scoffed. "Right. 'Cause killin' and pillagin' for a living is so attractive."

Pippin opened her mouth to reply, but stopped short. "Hey, did you hear that?"

The girls moved to the door again and peeked out.

"I'm goin' out," Nef said, moving forward.

Scott made his way through the mud, cursing under his breath the entire time. He reached another tree and stopped. He listened for a minute and concluded that he'd heard voices. He smirked. He'd catch them unprepared and have this little problem wrapped up in no time.

He pushed his way forward, his gun clutched in his left hand.

Jayne saw the first one step out of the shuttle. He could've shot him, but decided to take him out quick and quiet. He stayed where he was, lying on his stomach in the mud, not twenty feet from his target.

Jayne fingered the hilt of his knife.

Only a few more steps. . . .

Scott eased over the incline, his gun leading, and scanned the area.


He stared at the trees, puzzled. He was sure he'd heard voices. He thought about it for only a minute more before he decided to move on.

As he turned to crawl back, he heard the unmistakable click of a hammer being cocked. It was uncomfortably close to his left ear.

"Now, I'd hate to have to shoot you, son," a soft voice spoke into his ear, "so why don't you just hand me that pistol of yours?"

Scott eased his left arm out and his gun was plucked from his fingers.

"You gonna' kill me now?" he asked, steadily.

"I think leaving you to your fate is punishment enough."

Scott looked stunned. "Wha -? Well . . . what does that mean?"

"I think a man's end is something he carves out for himself throughout his life."

Scott frowned. "I don't need a philosophy lesson if I'm 'bout to die."

He felt a pair of hands searching his body for more weapons, plucking items from his pockets, then moving away. The gun at his head remained steady.

"We all have to answer for how we lived our lives. Some of us just have to answer a bit sooner."

Scott scoffed and rolled his eyes. "What are you, a preacher?"

"Yes, actually."

He felt the gun move away from his temple.

"I wonder at your life up until now," the voice continued, fading into the rain, "that your end comes in the middle of nowhere, a lonely testament to a life of iniquity."

Mal stopped and let his head fall into the mud. Since living through the war and choosing his profession, he'd often imagined how he'd die. He grunted in amusement. This wasn't far off the mark. Though, in his worst nightmare he'd never dreamed up the rain. Leave it to Fate to toss in one more thing to make his passing as unpleasant as possible.

He started crawling again. The rain continued to pelt his back like a rock storm, and his body seemed to sink further into the mud with every move. He was dragging his left leg as it had abandoned the struggle some time ago and was now totally useless. He'd taken a bullet through the upper thigh and, despite his efforts, it continued to bleed profusely.


Now he was hearing things.


'Sounded remarkably like Zoe. Mal tried to roll over to get a look at his apparition. It surely couldn't be his Zoe. He'd told her to stay behind and she never disobeyed orders. Well, there was that one time. . . .'

"Sir, we're not far from the shuttle. I'm gonna' drag you. Just sit tight."

'Nice touch, makin' her all competent and concerned. 'Course, a hallucination would be somethin' from his own mind. He'd want it to be dependable and brief. No sense talkin' a situation to death.' He laughed again.


"You'd follow me there, too . . . wouldn't you, Zoe?" he mumbled.

"Where's that, sir?"

He felt his body moving through the mud without his volition. "Hell," he said, quietly.

"Yes, sir. But, we're not going there just now."

He glanced around absently. "Like to take my gun. . . ."

"They'd probably make you check it at the door, sir."

He grunted. "Whoo dahn rules. . . ."

Jayne didn't think the night could get any worse, but he'd been surprised.

He'd had a good plan, but something happened midway through the execution of it. His prey had let out something very much like a girly scream and he'd stopped his knife an inch from her neck.

He took another few seconds to realize that his arm was wrapped around something definitely soft and squishy.

He didn't mind killing anyone that was trying to do the same to him. Shooting a woman wouldn't bother him much, but knifing one was just a bit disconcerting.

A moment of hesitation was all the time needed for his plan to go awry. He quickly found himself in a wrestling match. She was screaming and kicking and generally making him wish he'd gone ahead and knifed her.

She kicked him in the shin.


She threw her head back and hit him in the mouth.


Enough was enough. They'd probably already alerted anyone else still in the shuttle, so he might as well just shoot her. He threw her to the ground and reached for his sidearm.

Something landed on his back and he let out a grunt and fell to his knees, his gun flying off into the dark.

Jayne reached around and grabbed his attacker by the hair.

Long hair?

He pulled and she screamed.

Pippin flew over his shoulder and landed in the mud in front of him.

Jayne peered at her.

"What the ruttin' -?"

Nef dived at him then, wrapping both arms around him and knocking him onto his side.

Pip stood up and drew her gun. She tried to aim, but couldn't get a clear shot around Nef.

Jayne realized his situation immediately. He saw the glint of metal in her hand and quickly wrapped both arms around Nef, pinning her to his body and effectively shielding his from a hail of bullets.

"Ow!" Nef screamed. "Let go of me, you big ape!"

Jayne struggled to his feet, keeping Nef in a bear hug.

"Put her down!" Pippin screamed.

"Don't think so." Jayne cast a quick look behind him. No one was bursting out of the shuttle to help them. Maybe they were alone.

Nef, facing Jayne and her body mashed tightly against his, was left with few options. She thrust her head forward and tried to hit him in the head.

He jerked his head sideways and she missed.

"I said, put her down," Pippin said. "Or . . . or. . . ."

"Or what?" Jayne asked. He couldn't resist being antagonistic, even when his life was in danger.

Pippin stuttered, not sure what to do. "I'm . . . I am so going to shoot you. . . ."

Jayne backed toward the shuttle. "Go ahead. Bullet'l probably go through yer friend here and - ow!"

Nef had latched onto his left ear with her teeth and was biting for all she was worth.

Jayne put a hand on the side of her head and tried to push her away.

She wouldn't budge. She had teeth like a badger and his struggling only made her bite harder.

"Aaaaaagghhhh!" He staggered backward and hit the side of the shuttle.

Pip ran forward, trying to help, but Jayne saw her coming and lashed out with his foot.

His boot caught her squarely in the jaw. Her head snapped back and she dropped her gun and collapsed in the mud.

Jayne and Nef continued to struggle, neither willing to give in.

Mal was on the ground, leaning against a tree that afforded little in the way of shelter, while Zoe bandaged his leg. She wasn't one for unnecessary comfort, nor gentleness, and she assailed the task with determination.


"Stop moving around, sir."

"Zoe," Mal panted, "your mom ever tell you, you got a bedside manner like a drill instructor?"

Zoe didn't comment, just finished tying the makeshift bandage around his leg.

Mal closed his eyes. The cold and the blood loss were taking a toll on him and, despite Zoe's presence, he didn't rate his chances of survival very high.



"I asked if you can make it to the shuttle?"

Mal looked around, languidly. "Yeah. I'll try. . . ."

"It's not far," she said, helping him to his feet.

"That's what they always say," he mumbled.


"It's not far . . . this won't hurt a bit . . . don't poke trolls. . . ."

Jayne was rolling through the mud, sandwiched between Pippin and Nef, neither of which seemed willing to give up and let go. He pushed himself up onto one knee and Pippin, an arm around his neck, squeezed harder.

Jayne started choking. He reached around and beat at Pippin, but she was too small and he couldn't seem to hit her.

He could do something about Nef, however. He had an arm around her middle, trying to pry her away, but, with her teeth sunk into his ear, he hadn't put much effort into it. Now, he started squeezing.

Nef let go instantly. "You're crushing my spleeeeeen!"

She tried to knee him in the groin but, expecting that, Jayne managed to shove her sideways and she hit him in the leg.

Jayne staggered around, the two women clinging to him like parasites, and promptly tumbled through the open door of the shuttle.

Inara, still on the floor and trying to untie her hands with her teeth, glanced up in alarm.

They fell to the floor, Pippin landing on the bottom. She gasped in shock and her arms immediately went slack and fell away from Jayne's neck.

Nef struggled to get off of Jayne with the intent of finding a gun of some sort as she knew the fight wouldn't last much longer.

Jayne's hand snapped forward, grabbed her by the shirt, and yanked her back.

"Hey -!"

He punched her in the nose and let go of her.

Nef flew backward and out the door to land in a large puddle of water.

Jayne rolled off of Pippin and spotted Inara.

Their eyes locked for a moment.

"Well, that was embarrassing," she said.

Wash paced the bridge of Serenity, biting his lower lip and occasionally stopping to stare at the planet below. Mal and the others were way beyond late in checking in and all the myriad possibilities for this were dancing through his head with disturbing imagery.

Badger had given up complaining, humming, and his brief foray into singing which resulted in several objects being hurled at him, and now leaned sulkily against the back wall.

"Wash, you there?"

Badger came off the wall, alert, and Wash leapt at the console and hit the communicator.

"Zoe! What's going on?"

"Had a little trouble," she said, tightly. "We're coming back to the ship."

Simon stepped onto the bridge.

"Did you make it to the other shuttle?"

"Yes, but we had an accident. Captain's hurt."

Simon and Wash exchanged a concerned look.

"How bad?" Wash asked.

"Not too bad. We left Kaylee and the others to fix Inara's shuttle."

"All right." Wash sat and flicked a few buttons on the flight console. "I have you on approach. Think you can dock that thing, honey?"

"I think so. Out."

Wash turned to look at Simon and Badger.

"She's a good pilot . . . well, fair . . . I've been teaching her."

Badger stared at him, eyebrows raised in apprehension.

Book and Kaylee reached the shuttle just at the moment Jayne was hauling Nef inside. Hearing their approach, Jayne dropped her and pulled his sidearm.

"Jayne! It's us!" Kaylee said, raising her hands for safety's sake.

Jayne peered at them, then waved with his gun. "Come on in here," he said, gesturing at the shuttle.

"Is Inara all right?" Book asked.

"Yeah, she's okay."

Kaylee stopped and looked at Nef lying at Jayne's feet. "Who's that?"

"Don't know." Jayne looked at the unconscious woman. "But she bites."

Mal opened his eyes. He was lying on something hard and uncomfortable. It smelled like . . . he didn't know what it smelled like, just knew he didn't like it. He rolled it around his brain for a minute and decided it smelled like a wet dog. No, maybe wet burlap. It was musty and sweaty and . . . a little nauseating. . . .


Mal groaned and opened his eyes. "Zoe?"

"Yes, sir. How do you feel?"

Mal glanced around. The odor that had bothered him for the last five minutes suddenly became familiar. It was him.


Mal returned his gaze to Zoe. "Why do I smell like a drowned rat?"

"You've been shot, sir," she nodded toward the cockpit, "and now we've been hijacked."

"Hey, no talking back there," Eric said, waving his pistol at her.

Mal squeezed his eyes shut, then opened them again. "How'd that happen, then?"

"Bad timing, sir."

Book stared down at Nef and Pippin, both bound and gagged and lying on the floor.

"What are we gonna' do with them?"

Jayne closed the door of the shuttle. "Might as well kill 'em."

Book and Inara cast startled looks his way.

Jayne stared blankly at them. "What?"

Book moved next to the two women. "You can't just kill two unarmed women."

"Tried to kill me," Jayne said, putting a hand up to his ear. It was still bleeding liberally, turning his sodden t-shirt a sickly brown.

Inara gave him a patronizing smile. "Yes, I'm sure the mud wrestling had your life flashing before your eyes."

Jayne scowled at her.

Inara moved to the pilot's chair and sat. She quickly flicked a few switches and said: "I'll let Wash know what's going on."

Jayne exchanged an exasperated look with Book. "Watch 'em," he said, indicating Nef and Pippin. "I'm gonna' check on Kaylee."

Jayne found her in the back of the shuttle, the plates off the walls and most of the engine exposed. She was lying on her back, half inside the wall.

Jayne knelt beside her.

"Can you fix it?"

She grunted and moved to get a look at him. "Yeah. It'll be a few minutes, though." She tossed a few pieces of twisted metal and ceramic parts out of her way. "I'm gonna' bypass a few things here, get her in the air. It won't last, but it should only take about six minutes to break atmo and reach the ship."

"Okay. Let me know when you're done."

She grabbed his arm. "Got a little problem, though."


"See this here?" She pointed and Jayne leaned down and looked.


"They need to be held together."


"I got nothin' to hold 'em together with. Didn't expect 'em to shear off like that. Gonna' have to replace the whole thing when we get back. . . ."

"So, what are you sayin'? We can't get in the air?

She sighed. "Yeah, we can, I just . . . gotta' hold these in place." She gave him a worried look.

Realization hit Jayne and he looked startled. "What? You mean you gotta' hold that while we're flyin'?"




"I ain't lettin' you get electrocuted -."

"Jayne -."

"You could lose a hand like that."

"I'll be careful. Just so long as 'nara doesn't do any fancy maneuverin'. . . ."

Jayne stared at her for a few more seconds, then stood abruptly and stalked off.

Zoe was on the floor, Mal's head lying on her leg. He was unconscious again.

Arlo was pacing the small cockpit, anxious and jumpy, while Dave flew.

"You're goin' too fast," Sooner said.

"Am not."

"Hello?" she said, pointing. "Large, unmoving object dead ahead!"

"Will you shut up," Arlo told her.

"Fine," she said, throwing her arms in the air. "I'm just gonna' say I told you so, now then, okay. 'Cause I won't be able to when we're mashed up against that ship, all twisted up an' outta' joint 'an spitting blood through our teeth."

Arlo sighed and turned his back to her.

Lux traded a look with Zoe, shaking his head in exasperation.

She glanced down at Mal and gently brushed a strand of hair from his forehead.

"At least your not flying, sir," she murmured.

Wash frowned and said, "Say that again, please."

Inara repeated, "I said we'll be in the air in about two minutes."

"The other part. The part about being shot at."

"Everything's fine now. We're all okay."

Wash leaned forward in his chair. "Well . . . how -?"



She hesitated, then, "We don't know where Zoe and Mal are right now," she said, quietly.

Wash let out the breath he'd been holding. "They're okay. On their way back now."

Inara sat up straight in her chair. That was good news she hadn't expected.

"You talked to them?" she asked.

"Yeah. Zoe called, said Mal was hurt and they were leaving Kaylee to fix your shuttle."

Jayne, just entering, said, "What'd he say?"

A puzzled look crossed Inara's face. "How did they know you'd reached my shuttle?"

Jayne frowned, then leaned down and hit the transmit key. "Wash, you sure that's what she said?"

"Yeah. Why? What's wrong?"

"We ain't seen either or 'em in almost an hour. They left us pinned down out here. We only made it to 'nara's shuttle a few minutes ago."

A long, uncomfortable minute of silence passed, wherein each side considered what exactly that meant.

"Why would she say that?" Wash asked, a hint of fear in his voice. Only one reason he could think of and he didn't want to face it.

Jayne said, "How long before they dock?"

"They're docking right now."

"Lock the airlock. Don't let 'em inside."

"Mal's injured. We -."

"Lock it now!" Jayne said. "They get out of there, they'll take over the ship!"

"I can't just push a button and lock the door."

"They got locks, don't they?" Jayne asked.

"Yeah, they're for safety reasons. If environmental conditions on the ship are. . . ."

Wash pondered for only a few seconds, then leapt into action, flicking switches.

"What are you doing?" Simon asked.

"Opening the cargo bay doors. That'll depressurize the bay and the locks will engage on the airlock. They won't be able to leave their shuttle."

Badger leapt to his feet. "Now wait a minute! That's my cargo in there!"

"Sorry," Wash said, dispassionately.

Badger grabbed his arm. "You can't just blow my cargo into the atmo! You know what that costs!"

"Why's he on the bridge?" Jayne asked. "Get him outta' there."

Simon grabbed Badger's arm. "Just sit down."

"I'd prefer not to be manhandled, thank you," he said, pulling his arm free. "You can't just jettison my cargo -!"

"It's already done," Wash said.

Badger backed away, a look of total astonishment on his face. After a few seconds, he threw his arms in the air and said, "You're going to pay for that cargo. . . ."

"Won't the computer automatically repressurize the cargo bay?" Simon asked, ignoring him.

"Yes," Wash answered. "But not if I leave the doors open."

Jayne said, "They'll wanna' talk, use Mal and Zoe for bargaining and try and get you to open the door. We'll just end up in a standoff. Don't do it."

"I . . . I don't know if I -."

"Wash, you listen to me," Jayne said, angrily. "They get out of there, they're goin' straight for the bridge . . . or the engine room. Either way, we've lost the ship. Don't talk to them."

"All right," Wash said, dully. "No talking."

Pip let out a horrified shriek and said, "You're making us hold engine parts in place?! While we're flying?!"

Nef said, "I could lose a finger that way!"

"Better than all of you," Book said.

"What kind of a preacher are you, anyway?" Pip said, frowning at him in disbelief.

"I'm sorry. It's not my decision. Jayne is going to kill both of you unless you cooperate." He shrugged helplessly. "I'm sorry, but those are your choices."

Pip and Nef glared at him, then at each other.

"Glad to know we got a choice," Nef grumbled.

"It's real simple," Kaylee said, moving to the engine. "Just stay back from this section," she said, gesturing. "It's gonna' be turnin' when we get goin' and it could take your head off. . . ."

Lux turned to Arlo. "It's not opening."

Arlo groaned and pushed him aside. "It's a ruttin' door. All you have to do is open it." He grabbed the handle and heaved.

Lux stood back, arms folded over his chest. After a few seconds of Arlo struggling with the door, Lux tapped him on the shoulder and pointed at the indicator light.

"We've got no atmosphere outside the ship."

Arlo frowned and slammed a hand against the door.

"Malfunction?" he asked.

Lux shrugged. "Maybe. Could be they know we're here."

Arlo crossed to Dave. "Can you tell what's going on?"

Dave shrugged and gestured at the indicator panel. "All I'm getting is a no atmo indicator and a warning to stay where we are."

Arlo motioned for Zoe to stand up. "Get on the radio, ask 'em what's going on."

Knowing he'd threaten to shot Mal again, Zoe decided to cooperate. She eased Mal's head off of her lap and got to her feet.

"Don't get smart," Arlo said, and stepped back to allow her to reach the intercom.

She hit the transmit button.


On the Serenity bridge, Wash, Simon and Badger sat in awkward silence. There wasn't anything for them to do but wait. Badger was seated, his head hanging and shaking it slowly from side to side.

Badger looked up, abruptly. "I think we need to arm ourselves and get to the cargo bay."

"And what, have a shootout?" Wash asked, incredulously.

Badger pulled his hat off and picked at the brim. "Now or later, a gunfight's brewin'. You can't keep 'em in there for long."

Simon stood up. "What do you mean? Why can't we? They can't get out through that door, and even if they could, they wouldn't be able to breathe."

Badger smiled and shook his head. "They're desperate. They want this ship, mate, and they're gonna' do whatever they have to to get it."

"I still don't see what they can do. . . ."

Badger stood and confronted Simon. "What if the situation were reversed? Hmm?" He glanced at Wash. "What if that was you on the shuttle, wantin' to get in here? You don't think you'd do somethin'. . . extreme?"

Zoe stepped back from the flight console.

"They're not answering," she said.

"They must know." Arlo pushed her aside. "Serenity, you will pressurize your cargo bay and open the airlock or I will start killing your people."

Dave looked at him, uncomfortably. "Boss, they ain't listening."


Dave waved at the panel. "We're transmitting, but they're not receiving. I think they must have communications shut down."

Arlo pushed himself away from the console, furious. He paced for a few minutes, while his crew remained silent, knowing this wasn't the time for petty bickering.

After a minute, he said, "We have to get out of here. They must have a plan to deal with us." He looked at Zoe. "What would they do?"

"Leave us all in here."

Arlo smirked. "I doubt that."

"You left some of your people on the planet. You think we're not as ruthless?"

Arlo studied her for a minute. "You came back for that one," he said, gesturing at Mal. "Don't seem any too ruthless to me."

Zoe shrugged. "If I didn't think I could help, I would've left him behind."

Arlo glared at her for another few minutes, then said to his crew, "Search the shuttle. See if it's got pressure suits."

Wash was staring intently at his console. It showed the cargo doors still open and the airlock closed. He felt queasy. He didn't like waiting and he found himself in the unlikely position of wishing Jayne was there.

"I tell you what I'd do," Badger said, "I'd be tearin' that shuttle apart right now, lookin' for a suit, then blast open that airlock door."

Simon and Wash exchanged a worried look.

"Does the shuttle carry pressure suits?" Simon asked.

"Yeah," Wash answered. "I don't know how many."

"How can they get the airlock open?" Simon asked.

"I don't know," Wash answered. "I don't think bullets will do any good against it."

"One clever person is all it takes," Badger said.

Arlo paced around the room. "You sure this will work?"

Lux spared a glance over his shoulder. "No, but it's all we can do, unless you want to shoot at the door and kill half of us with the ricochet."

"I just want to say that I think this whole thing was a bad idea from the beginning," Dave said.

Sooner stood next to him, gazing out the cockpit windows at the Serenity. "Our ship was purtier."

Arlo whirled around. "If I hear one more word about our ship, I'm shovin' it back down your throat with a bullet. Got it?"

Sooner glowered and crossed her arms over her chest. "Fine."

"Okay," Lux said. He shut the panel and looked at Arlo. "I cut the hydraulics. We should be able to push it open now."

Arlo moved past him.

Lux said, "If the inner hatch isn't closed, all the oxygen will be sucked out of here -."

"I don't need a lesson in physics."

"I'm just sayin . . . we might want to say a few words . . . for posterity, you know."

Arlo ignored him and pushed his way through. He bent and examined the door. He turned back to Lux. "Get into that suit."

Badger was pacing the bridge in anxiety. "I'm not a violent man by nature," he said, "but a firearm of sorts wouldn't come amiss about now."

"I don't like Ri -." He glanced awkwardly at Badger. "I don't like my . . . cousin . . . being out there alone," Simon said, glancing at the closed door.

"Where did you leave her?" Wash asked.

"In her room. I tried a new medication. It didn't work very well and I wanted her to sleep it off."

Badger continued to talk to himself. "A knife even. . . ."

"Maybe we should go get her," Simon said.

"If they break into the ship, they'll come straight here, so I don't know that she'd be any safer up here with us."

"We have no idea how many hostiles are on that shuttle," Badger said, interrupting.

Simon turned to look at him. "It can only hold four."

"That's standard," Wash said, "but it's not weight capacity. It's a matter of life support. That shuttle can hold probably 10 to 12 people, they just couldn't breathe after about an hour."

"And they only had to get from the planet to the ship," Badger said.

"Wonderful," Simon said. "This is getting better and better."

A red light on the flight console started flashing.

"What's that mean?" Badger asked.

Wash whirled around. "The airlock's opening!"

Simon leaned over his shoulder. "Isn't the cargo door still open?"

Wash glanced at the control panel. "Yes. So, either they're suicidal, or they've gotten themselves a spacesuit or two."

Inara piloted her shuttle with an ease and precision that spoke of many hours of practice. She didn't seem bothered by the fact that parts of her engine were being held together by two disgruntled bandits whose total I.Q. points barely made it into double digits.

Jayne stood behind her, watching the Serenity grow in their window. He was agitated and impatient. They had no idea what was happening on the ship and he didn't know how they were going to get inside with the bay depressurized.

They'd broken out the handheld communicators and switched to their backup frequency before leaving the planet, and Jayne now held his to his lips. He hit the transmit switch. "Wash, you there?"

"Yes." He sounded anxious.

"What's goin' on?"

Wash told him.

"They're probably trying to close the doors manually," Jayne said.

"Yeah, and I can't do anything to stop them."

Jayne thought about the situation for a minute, then, "Can you keep the computer from pumping air back into the cargo bay?"

"Uh, no, it's going to do it automatically."

"I could do it, if I was there," Kaylee said.

Jayne turned around. "How?"

"From the engine room. That's the key to the ship, you know, not the bridge. If I was gonna' take over a ship, I'd go there before the bridge."

"Well, how 'bout this little oxygen problem then?" he asked.

"We don't have time to reprogram the computer, Kaylee," Wash said.

Kaylee took Jayne's wrist and pulled the communicator down to her mouth. "We don't have to. The engine room is the heart of the ship. Everything starts there, including the life support. Just gotta' block up the vents leading to the cargo bay."

Lux pulled himself along the railing, his body floating easily through the weightless environment. The doors were only a few feet away and he had every reason to believe he could close them. Maybe Arlo had a good plan after all.

He reached the wall and eased open the panel beside the door. The manual crank was there and he reached for it.

River stepped quietly along the corridor. Bad things were happening and she wanted to be with Simon. She heard running and shouting and pressed her petite frame against the wall.

"Cargo bay doors are closing," Wash said over the intercom.

Simon held up his communicator. "We're moving as fast as we can!"

Badger raced along behind him, the engine room their destination.

Hearing her brother, River dashed out into the corridor.

"I can't believe this trip!" Badger yelled, waving his arms around as he ran. "You kidnap me, space my cargo, and now you've got me trying to save your - oopphh!"

Simon stopped and whirled around.

Badger and River were lying on the floor, legs and arms entwined, wrestling clumsily and each trying to get leverage to get to their feet.

Simon leaned down to try to help River up.

"Simon!" Wash called.

Simon jerked upright,

"We're running out of time," Wash said. "You got about a minute. . . ."

Simon hesitated for a second while he examined his sisters's predicament, then, apparently determining that she would be safe enough for the moment, turned and ran down the corridor.

Badger pushed River aside and leaned against the wall. He squinted at her and she at him.

"Do I know you?"

"You want a gun, don't you?" she said, abruptly.

He snorted. "Well, that would be lovely, now wouldn't it?"

River leaned in close to him, making him uncomfortable, and whispered, "I know where to get one."

He pushed her back. "That so?" He eyed her critically. "Got a stash somewhere then?"

She sat back. "All your pretty boxes are bouncing around the sky," she said, waving her fingers lazily through the air. "Got a tight seal on 'em, though, don't they?"

Badger's face crinkled in confusion. "So?"

She smiled. "Not so pretty very soon. They'll be all burned up if they hit atmo." Her fingers fluttered through the air again. "All sorts of colors then."

Badger squinted at her. "You're not exactly right in the head, are you, luv?"

Simon burst into the engine room and stopped in the middle of the room. He held the communicator up to his mouth.

"Okay . . . I'm here," he panted. "What do . . . I do?"

Kaylee's voice crackled over the intercom. "Find the pipes, they're above you."

Simon looked up.

Inara's shuttle eased into its berth and the clamps locked it in place. Jayne was at the hatch instantly. It still read no atmosphere.

"So, they can't get out and neither can we," Inara said.

Book approached. "I believe this is the standoff you were referring to earlier."