Hunt: Prologue: Tracking

His hands reached across the table a bit too quick, and slapped against the stack of datapads piled up haphazardly - so oddly haphazardly - on one corner. They fell over, clattering to the metal deck, and he froze at the noise. His eyes tracked down to the scattered metal and plastic displays.

Jory Coll half snarled, half-sighed a curse, and sat back, closing his eyes tight. A moment later, he began to sob.

The spilled pads were like his whole life in the last few years in microcosm, and looking at the mess that resulted from his own ineptitude made him almost physically ill. It was just another confirmation of how gorram worthless he was. The last few days had just been the final proof that he needed as to how useless his entire life had been.

Jory opened his eyes after a moment. He reached for the amber-colored drink, the glass shaking in one hand as the other kept typing. The words were blurring in Jory's mind and eyes, but he kept working on them, determined to get this one thing right before it ended.

He downed the liquor, tasting the sweet, burning sensation as it rolled down his throat, and sighed. He wiped his eyes, straightening himself, and continued typing into the datapad. He watched the words with a deep-seated resignation, and something in the back of his mind told him to stop, to get up, to go to the comms terminal in the next room on his bunk on the passenger ship, and call his wife. His sister. His parents.

That voice was tiny and distant, crushed under the weight of how badly he'd failed.

It had taken him five years to get through grad school, and he's gotten his job as a vendor just barely. He'd come to realize in the last few days that his boss had hired him out of pity, not out of skill. They sent him on these long sales jobs because they needed someone to do the go se work on the outer worlds where they couldn't teleconference.

Jory was useless in the grand scheme of things. He'd never get promoted, he'd never amount to anything but a gopher for the higher-ups in his meager division of Blue Sun.

There was no gorram point to it anymore.

That realization, settling in over the last three days on another seven-month-long sales cruise was frightening, but also liberating. It gave him the freedom to make the only choice that really mattered anymore.

He had no money, his family disliked him, his wife was apparently cheating on him, he had no kids - and never would, he suspected a couple days ago - and he had no prospects for his future.

He had nothing.

Jory Coll finished typing out the last note, and read over it, trying to keep from breaking down in tears. He'd already cried so much in the last couple of days as each realization sunk in, but now, at the very end, at the point where he understood he was nothing whatsoever, Jory was on the verge of a paralyzing breakdown. His hands were still but unresponsive, his body was going rigid, and part of him was suddenly crying out that no, he shouldn't do this, that things could get better.

It was a chaotic, irrational yet entirely natural moment, but as he sat there, the voice telling him that he should live and talk to his family began to fade.

What good would it do? he asked himself.

The vendor turned in his chair, hands on his knees, caught somewhere between a laugh and a sob, and nodded to the other person in the room.

Steel reached out toward him, sharp and cold, and he took the blade in hand from little fingers behind dark eyes.

He'd been surprised when he first saw her, and then confused - confused, because she seemed like she'd always been there, that she belonged in his room, staring at him, watching him as he read the letters, as he made his realizations, as he'd drank and sobbed and raged and made the final choice.

Some part of him screamed, distantly, that the girl didn't belong there, but the rest of him drowned it out with more important realizations.

His fingers closed around the knife handle, and he angled it toward his stomach.

Jory Coll let out one last, plaintive sob, and jammed the long blade into his gut.

Dark eyes watched as the Blue Sun worker gasped in pain and tumbled out of his chair to slam onto the floor. The girl stepped around him as his blood pooled on the floor, making sure she didn't step in any of it. After a few minutes, the light in Jory's eyes faded, and he went still.

Little fingers took the datapad containing his suicide note, and the little girl walked across the room, leaving the corpse behind her as she stepped into the main living room of Coll's two-room bunk.

There was crying, coming from a darkened corner of the room, and the little girl walked toward the sobbing figure curled up in the corner. She paused near the incinerator chute and dumped the datapad in there, before continuing to the shivering, weeping girl.

She'd seen worse days. Hair that had been hopelessly tangled a week ago had been washed and combed into wavy strands, and she'd cleaned up to look like a normal eighteen-year-old girl. However, she was still curled up into a fetal position, sobbing and pressing her hands to her temples . . . at least until the dark-eyed child walked up to her, and the pain and fear faded to numbness.

The sobbing subsided after a few seconds, and the girl looked up. Their eyes met for a moment.

"He's dead," River Tam whispered, and the child nodded. River's eyes flicked to the door, then back to the child, and her face suddenly flashed with a white-hot burst of outrage and uncharacteristic anger.

She shot forward, trying to rise, and Laertes swung up like a club at the side of the child's head, the jian still locked in its sheath.

The little girl ducked sideways underneath it, the blow tossing her black hair about, and the child took a step forward, inside River's reach. Her hand shot up and grabbed River's wrist as it passed, and an instant later the anger and violence melted away. River swayed where she half-crouched as her emotions were scrambled.

"He deserved to die," Kathryn Wade whispered, clutching the older girl's wrist tighter. "They all deserved to die for what they did to us."

River closed her eyes, and shook her head. For a moment, a fresh batch of tears began to roll down her cheeks.

"No," she whispered, words harsh and tight.

Kathryn stared up at the older girl, frowning. As young as she was, she understood a resistant mind and what lines some people wouldn't cross. River Tam was willing to kill in self-defense or the defense of others, but she wasn't a murderer. She wouldn't - or couldn't - condone deliberately taking a life like this.

Kathryn could change that, but twisting a mind against itself like that could cause damage, especially to so fragile a psyche. Jory had taken days to break into suicide, after all, and it had taken a very depressed, grieving teenager who'd lost his family to follow and eliminate Forthill. The men who'd eliminated the Blue Sun lab had been mostly insane by the time she'd finished with them, and she'd had to make them disappear as well.

River was too useful, too protective, too fragile, and too . . . too much like Kathryn for her to break her.

But Kathryn could wait. Kathryn could be subtle. Just like Kondraki, River would come around to her way of thinking. It would just take time.

"We need to go back to our bunks," Kathryn said, and River nodded, lowering the sheathed blade. She straightened her clothes, and with one hand holding Katie's, they stepped out into the tight corridors of the bulk passenger ship and started back to the dark, safe bunk they had in the lower decks.

They needed to find someplace safe. Someplace distant and quiet, where Katie could work on turning River and break down the mental taboos against murder and vengeance.

Then, they could start hunting, and get payback. Kondraki, the lab workers, and Jory Coll were just the first.

They all deserved to die.

The last week couldn't have been worse for Lieutenant Overton, head of security on the passenger liner Maoiengo. Normally he had to deal with theft and some violence, considering his liner was mostly there to ferry people around the Kalidesa system. Lots of lower-class people needed to move around, and his ship carried over a thousand at a time. They invariably brought trouble with them, but he didn't usually have to deal with death - muggings and theft, but rarely murder, assault, or suicide.

Usually was the operative word. Five days ago, that had changed, and now he was inundated with people asking him questions, mostly passengers and his superiors, as he tried to figure out what was going on.

The woman entering his office, however, was the third person to ask to speak to him in the last couple of days who was from off-ship. The Maoiengo had docked at a moon whose name he couldn't remember and was offloading passengers, when he'd gotten word the woman wanted to meet with him and ask the head of security some questions.

Normally, he would have handed it off to one of his subordinates, but Overton knew you didn't do that sort of thing to a registered Companion.

"Come in, Miss Serra," he said, and held out a chair for her, as all polite men did around Companions. The dark-haired woman seemed to float into the room, and he caught a whiff of her perfume, and was momentarily struck at her elegant poise and beauty. It took Overton a second to unscramble his brain as she nodded.

"Thank you, Lieutenant," she said, sitting down in the chair. He circled around his desk and sat down himself.

"What can I do for you?" he asked, noting that this meeting was already turning out a lot more pleasant than the last time someone off-ship had come in to ask him questions.

"I'm looking for someone," Inara Serra said, sitting at comfortable ease in the chair.

"One of the dependents living at one of our temples has gone missing. A teenage girl. We think she ran away, and we're trying to find her and bring her home."

"You think she might be here?" the Lieutenant asked, and Inara nodded. Worry flickered across her face.

"We believe she purchased a ticket on the moon Victoria," she explained. "But we're not certain. You understand, we're not police of anything of the sort. We're just guardians who are worried about her."

"There a reason she ran away?" Overton asked, curious as to why the Companion's Guild would send a registered Companion out to look for a wayward child.

"The girl in question is . . . mentally unstable," Inara said, and that worry returned, striking a bit of unease in Overton's gut. "We've been providing her therapy and treatment, but she hasn't been using her medication recently, and she disappeared some weeks ago. We're deeply concerned about what she might do if left unsupervised."

"I understand," Overton said, nodding. Companion temples, from what he knew, were places of healing, both mentally and physically. It made sense that they would be worried about a child getting loose, especially if they were taking care of her. "Can you give me a description?"

"She is young, in her late teens," Inara said. "Dark brown hair, brown eyes, light skin, maybe about ninety pounds."

Overton frowned at that description, and straightened his shoulders.

"I don't recall anyone of that description," he said. "You have to understand, I'm entirely willing to help you, but we take on thousands of people at every stop, and the last world we were at, Victoria, saw an influx of families fleeing the fighting and chaos. We have a lot of children and teenagers on board, and I can't keep track of them all."

Inara stared back, and nodded after a moment. Overton hated to not be helpful, but that was the truth, even if it caused the Companion obvious distress.

"I see," she said. "Nothing strange or unusual happened on the ship? She may have caused trouble with someone. She . . . has a tendency to do that."

"There was a suicide a few days ago," Overton admitted, and shrugged. "But it doesn't appear to have any connection to anything."

"A suicide?" the Companion said, her mouth opening in surprise. "Oh, my. What happened?"

"A passenger, a Mr. Coll, killed himself," Overton said. "At least, that's what it looked like. The injury was self-inflicted, the ship's doctor confirmed it. No signs of defensive wounds or anything of the sort, but we didn't find any notes or anything, which was odd." Overton shrugged. "No evidence we could find of foul play, though. Guy was unremarkable, just a traveling vendor for Blue Sun."

"I see," Inara replied, looking down at the floor. "That poor man."

"Do you have a picture of the girl?" Overton asked, to which Inara shook her head.

"We don't unfortunately," she said. "The dependent was very new." She fronwed. "Was there anywhere you might have stopped on the way here? I worry that she might have gotten off the ship."

"A couple of days ago, right after the suicide, we stopped at Sirrocco Station. Just for refueling. Not a good place to linger, you understand."

"Absolutely," the Companion nodded. Sirrocco had a reputation, after all, as the sort of place people went to either hide or get killed.

Overton looked back down at his datapad on the table, and for a moment, he considered adding who else had asked about Sirrocco. His fingers shivered for a moment at the thought, and he inwardly shook his head. No, there was no way that those two had anything to do with the Companion Guild's search.

Inara was staring at him, eyes intent and curious, yet not probing. He straightened again.

"Without a picture, I'm afraid I can't really help you," he said, shrugging.

"Is it possible she could have gotten off at any point?" Inara asked, to which Overton shook his head.

"No shuttles launched, and we only docked at Sirrocco shortly. No one was reported to have gotten off there."

"I see," she said, nodding. "Well, then." She began to rise. "Thank you for your help, lieutenant."

He nodded, and rose after her to open the door – one of those old-style sliding doors that required someone to push it open. She stepped past him, and he caught another whiff of her perfume, and the Companion gave him a smile and a quiet whisper of thanks. He watched her walk down the corridor, and before he could think against it, he spoke up.

"Look, ah," he said, and Inara paused. Overton glanced back inside his office, and then back to the distractingly-lovely Companion. "If you were thinking of looking there, I'd advise against going to Sirrocco," he added.

"Why?" Inara asked.

"There were some men here, earlier," he said. "They were looking for a fugitive, and they thought whoever she was might have run to Sirocco when we docked." He exhaled quickly. "They were thinking Coll's death was a murder."

"What sort of men?" Inara asked, her tone perfectly curious and disarming, and she took a long step back toward him.

She heard the hiss and clank of the docking systems through the ship's hull, and Zoe Washburne, acting-captain of the marginally-decent ship Serenity strode down the catwalk toward the shuttle doors, her husband right behind her.

"You think she had any luck?" Wash asked.

"We're about to find out," Zoe replied. She heard other footsteps in the bay, and glanced down to see Jayne lumbering up the steps.

The doors slid open, and Inara stepped out a moment later. Zoe came to a dead halt. It was rare for her to see Inara obviously distressed, but she clearly was now.

"They're on Sirrocco Station," Inara said almost immediately.

"I know the place," Wash replied. "One day's hard burn from here."

"You sure?" Jayne asked Inara, and she nodded.

"They wouldn't have gotten off at a major station like this one," the Companion said, "And they docked at Sirrocco a day after Jory Coll was killed."

"Suicide?" Zoe asked, and Inara nodded.

"That's what they said," she replied. "Under suspicious circumstances."

"Then it was her," Zoe said, voice dark and low.

"Shepard was right," Jayne said. "Watch the Cortex for people getting killed who work for Blue Sun, leads us right to 'em."

"Good, let's get going," Zoe said, and Wash spun around. They started for the bridge.

"Wait," Inara said, and the two stopped in their tracks. "The man I spoke to mentioned we weren't the first to be interested in Coll's death."

"Whaddya mean?" Jayne asked. "Feds?"

"No," Inara said, and Zoe saw the distress intensify on the Companion's face. "There were two men who arrived a couple of days after Coll was killed. He said they were convinced it was a murder, and he told them about Sirrocco Station."

Zoe felt her heart lock up in her chest.

"What kind of men?" she asked.

"They were wearing black suits," Inara said. "And they wore what he said appeared to be blue gloves."

Author's Notes: This episode is a continuation and resolution of the events of the "Charity" episode. Both fortunately and unfortunately, this is probably going to be the shortest episode thus far in the series - fortunately for the reader because there won't be as many sadistic cliffhangers and it won't take me months to get finished, but unfortunately for me because I won't be stringing the audience along for months on end. :p

Until next chapter . . . .