All told, Mal should have known it was the calm before the compression coil blew, letting the crew rest on the laurels of a job well done on some rinky-dink moon out past Beaumonde. Him being too gorram magnanimous was the problem. It earned him trouble faster than wearing a browncoat in a Core bar on U-Day, and Mal should know, 'cause he did that very thing every year.
But the peck of trouble heading his way wasn't pinging on his radar screen just yet as he sat in the pilot's chair watching Wash fiddle underneath the nav console, man's legs sticking out and Mal thinking that Wash had some decidedly odd taste in footwear.
"That... should just about..." Wash said, and kicked his legs out in a spastic little dance. "Ta ma de!"
Mal swung the chair sideways just in time. "Wash, just 'cause I ain't currently using my kneecaps doesn't mean I don't have plans for 'em in the future."
"Okay, ouch," Wash groaned.
Mal peered under the nav console. "Careful there. Zoe won't take it too kindly if you get yourself fried."
"Believe it or not, Captain, but I have a certain personal interest in that, myself," Wash said mildly. "Okay, that should do it for real this time."
Wash was pushing himself out from underneath the console when the comms came on. "Captain?"
Mal gave Wash his seat back and hit the wall unit. "Yeah, Zoe?"
"Jayne just got back," Zoe said.
"We got a full house yet?"
"Still waitin' on the Preacher," Zoe said. "Just..."
Mal had long since learned that something was always hinky when Zoe didn't finish her sentences, 'cause generally speaking they weren't very long and complex. "Something you ain't telling me, Zoe?"
"I think we got a problem," she said. "You'd better get down here, sir."
"Gan ni niang!" Mal said, thumping his fist against the wall. "Lettin' Jayne outta my sight for two whole days? Always a mistake."
"I couldn't agree more," Wash said, dogging his heels as Mal clomped down the stairs. "Except for the part where not looking at Jayne for two whole days has greatly improved my quality of life. I think we should try it more often."
"Stupid, gorram..." Mal said under his breath as they passed through the empty kitchen.
"How about every day?" Wash continued brightly. "Every day is no Jayne day. Hey, we already have a slogan!"
Mal was about ready to snap at Wash to shut his trap when he caught sight of a little crazy parade down one of the other corridors and stopped short, Wash bumping into his back. "Zoe?"
"Over here, Captain," Zoe said. Her hand rested on the butt of her pistol, and she stood a goodly distance back from Jayne, Inara and Kaylee trailing behind her, their arms tightly linked.
"What seems to be the trouble?" Mal asked, watching Jayne shuffle along real slow. He was looking more perplexed than Mal had ever seen him, although technically speaking, Jayne didn't look terribly perplexed all that often due to a significant lack deep thought on his part. The big guy lurched sideways and slammed his shoulder into the wall, then just kept going without making a sound. Mal winced; he knew Jayne was no sissy, but that one was definitely gonna leave a mark.
"Is he drunk?" Wash said, peering over Mal's shoulder.
Jayne muttered something real quiet-like and lurched again, narrowly missing putting his eye out on some metal pipe.
"What's he mumbling on about?" Mal said.
"Brains, sir," Zoe answered, easing along after Jayne.
Mal followed her, motioning at the others to stay back. "The who now?"
"Brains," she said again. "All he's said since I found him in the cargo bay, sir."
Mal stared at her for a good while, but Zoe's poker face didn't fold. "Huh. Well, ain't that something."
"Oh my god," Wash said in mock horror. "Jayne's been zombified!"
"C'mon, Wash, that's just --" Mal started to argue, then stopped right quick when Zoe quirked an eyebrow. "Zombified?"
"Don't rightly know," Zoe said, watching Jayne raggedly turn the corner that led to the crew quarters. "Could be he's been zombified."
"Ain't no such thing," Mal scoffed.
"Braaaiiins," Jayne said, and fell down the ladder leading to his quarters.
Mal stood over the ladder and looked down, his head tilted in sympathy. "Okay, so maybe Jayne got himself zombified. Is his neck supposed to bend like that?"
Mal climbed down the ladder when Jayne managed to get to his feet and shuffle into his room. Zoe dropped down beside him, and they found Jayne kneeling on his bunk and clutching his gun to his chest like a teddy bear.
"Look at that," Mal said, grinning at Zoe. "Guess Jayne came back for Vera. Suppose there's no reason he'd wanna leave behind his favorite lady just 'cause of a nasty case of zombification."
"Aww," Kaylee said from up top, bending at the waist and trying to see into Jayne's room. "That's kinda sweet, don't you think? Jayne havin' soft feelings."
"'Sweet' isn't the word I'd use," Wash said. "'Violently disturbing' comes to mind. Wouldn't you say, sweetie?"
"Oh, I'm disturbed," Zoe said. She stared at Jayne the same way she used to stare at Wash's more colorful shirts before they got hitched.
Wash waved his hands about. "I'm no Zombiologist, but shouldn't he be more with the decaying flesh?"
Mal sighed and climbed back up the ladder, leaving Jayne to cuddle Vera to his undead heart's content. "Somebody should head back into town, ask around. See if they can't scare up a reason why Jayne's all... zombified and such."
"I'll go," Inara volunteered, letting go of Kaylee's arm. "I know several people in the area."
Mal nodded his thanks. "Nothing better than a pretty lady who knows how to ease things along to squeeze some gorram information outta that town."
Inara's big eyes narrowed a bit at 'squeeze' but she took it for the compliment it mostly was. "I shouldn't be gone long." She smiled at Kaylee and picked up her skirts, moving off toward her shuttle.
"Bye, 'Nara," Kaylee called, waving after her.
"Now," Mal said, putting his hands on his hips, "anybody got any suggestions as to what we oughtta be doing with Jayne in the meantime?" He stared hard at each of his crew. "Perhaps I should clarify: that resounding silence just then? Not so much a suggestion."
"Whose bright idea was this, anyway?" Wash said, ducking a foil packet of protein. "'Follow him around, keep him out of trouble,' you said. Does this look like we're keeping him out of trouble?"
Mal crossed his arms, watching Jayne methodically rip apart their food stores worse than River ever had. "Seemed like a good idea at the time."
It had, in fact, been their only idea. And although Jayne was moving as sluggish as dripping honey, as soon as anybody got themselves in range of Jayne's long arms, Jayne'd pull them into a bear hug and start gnawing on their heads.
Mal rubbed at his scalp. Jayne hadn't broken the skin, but it still hurt like a si san ba. "You wanna take him on, Wash? Be my very welcome guest."
Zoe slanted him a glance. "Please don't goad my husband into foolish heroics, sir."
"Hey, I learned my lesson," Wash protested. "I don't go in when things are tight. Or is it sticky? I think it's sticky."
Behind the kitchen counter, Jayne dropped another armload of canned goods on the floor with a clatter. "Brains," he muttered petulantly.
Mal heard the pitter-patter of little feet in big combat boots before they appeared, River dragging her big brother into the kitchen by the hand. Her pink sweater fell almost to her knobby knees.
"What's going on?" Simon said. "River's been --"
His sister let out one of her spooky laughs, and it shut Simon up right quick. "His feet are covered in dust." She walked right up to Jayne and stood on her tiptoes, trying to look in him the eye. "Dust all over. The dust won't let him move. Won't let him talk. It doesn't want him to be alive. He's trapped. Like a girl in a box."
River seemed to snap back to herself just then, and she dodged Jayne's slow lunge with another spooky giggle.
"But I didn't stink," she said, all smiles, dancing to the other side of the room on an imaginary balance beam.
Mal blinked for a moment or two. "Well, she ain't wrong."
"Does smell like he's been livin' in those clothes for a while," Zoe said, waving her hand in front of her nose.
"Well, there ain't exactly a place on this boat big enough to hose his zombified self down, so I suggest you all get used to it," Mal said.
Simon cleared his throat behind them. "Is there something about this situation of which I should be apprised?"
Mal glanced over his shoulder and shrugged. "Not so much."
"Jayne's been zombified," Kaylee said brightly.
Simon looked like someone who'd accidentally sat his ass down on a plate of fresh bao. "Pardon?"
"Jayne," Wash said, gesturing toward the man who was currently lumbering their way. "He's been zombified." Jayne clumsily reached out for him and Wash ducked behind Zoe, yelling, "Hey! Stop staring at my medulla oblongata, pal."
"I'm... missing something," Simon said.
Mal gave his shoulder a hearty smack. "You ain't the only one. Seems Jayne here got himself zombified while he was in town."
Simon raised his hands in a gentlemanly little show of frustration. "Will everyone please stop using that word?!"
"What," Wash said innocently. "Zombified?"
Jayne finally stopped lunging at people and retreated to a corner of the kitchen, hugging Vera like a big, creepy, undead kid-thing. "Braaaiiins."
Mal grinned. "Well, Simon, looks like we finally got a body on our crew that's more morbid and creepifying than your sister."
Simon grimaced. "Oh happy day."
"So," Mal said, clapping his hands together. "Who wants to head to the market in town, see about scaring up some brains for our zombified friend, here?" Five hands shot up. Two of 'em belonged to little Kaylee. "Oh, it does warm the cockles of my heart to see this kind of volunteer spirit among my crew."
Wash's hand dropped. "Don't you think you should have mentioned that there'd be cockle-warming? I'm not prepared to warm any cockles. No, no cockles for me, sir."
"Wash?" Mal said.
"Chin wo de pigu."
Wash considered it for a moment. "I think I need Zoe's permission for that, sir."
"I'd rather he didn't, sir," Zoe said. Wash shrugged a 'what are you gonna do?'
Mal sighed loudly. "Kaylee, go fetch me some brains, please?"
Kaylee bounced. "Sure thing, Cap!" she said, stopping to buss his cheek on the way out. "Be right back."
"Now, really," Simon said when Kaylee skipped out the door. "Would someone please tell me what's going on?"
Mal peered into the plastic container at the small handfuls of mottled pink and gray. "Monkey brains, you say?"
Kaylee nodded, her little nose wrinkling up. "Yep. Pricey, too. I know they're some sorta delicacy or somethin', but..." Kaylee shuddered. "Good thing I ran into Inara and Book, or I'd've had to come back for more coin."
Mal looked over at Jayne, who was slumped in a corner of the kitchen and thumping his head against the wall. "Guess we best give him some, see if that don't settle him down." He took the container over to the counter and tried to jiggle it over a bowl, but the monkey brains weren't cooperating. He finally stuck his hand in there and pulled one of the slippery things out. It plopped into the bowl and sorta slid down to the bottom, gleaming and pale.
"Okay," he said, swallowing hard. "Next time, somebody else gets to do this or I let him gnaw on your skulls as much as he gorram wants." He put the bowl on the table and slid it over to the other side closest to Jayne while Zoe covered him, backing away when Jayne lumbered to his feet.
"Brains!" Jayne grunted happily. He sat down and curled himself around the bowl like it was real chocolate ice cream on his birthday, and proceeded to stuff his face.
"Ugh," Kaylee said.
"Well, I-I... " Book stuttered. "Kaylee did say... but I..."
"My sentiments exactly," Simon said, leaning against the kitchen counter and propping his chin on his hand.
"Remind me never to eat from that bowl again," Wash said, looking a little green around the gills.
"Okay, so," Mal said, turning his back on the monkey-brain-eating. "What'd those charming town inhabitants have to say about my zombified crew member?"
Inara reluctantly removed the scented silk hankie she had pressed to her nose. "As far as I could determine, I don't think this was entirely Jayne's fault."
"Well, I think that's a first," Wash said.
Impatient for the rest, Mal turned toward him and said, "Bizui."
Wash rolled his eyes. "Sorry, sir. Closing the zombified peanut gallery, sir."
"Go on, Inara," said Mal.
"Apparently, on his first day of leave he pursued a young woman," Inara paused a little, smiling, "who demonstrated somewhat questionable taste by returning Jayne's interest."
Mal crossed his arms. "I'm sensing there's more to this thrilling adventure than a roll in the hay."
Inara nodded. "The young woman may have been agreeable, but her father was not." She hesitated. "The people I talked to referred to him as 'bokor'."
"Bo-what?" Mal said, squinting.
At the same time, Book said, "Oh dear."
"You know what that means?" Mal asked.
Book had trouble tearing his eyes way from where Jayne was still happily munching on his monkey brains. "My fellow Shepherds at the abbey -- that's what they say the local voodoo practitioners call themselves. 'Bokor.' Sorcerer."
Mal found himself a mite speechless. And apparently so did everyone else.
"Wow," Wash said after a moment. "Were we all waiting for Jayne to make a dumb comment about beasts and Congress just then? Because I know I was."
"Are you tellin' me," Mal said, pinching the bridge of his nose, "that Jayne got himself hexed by some bad voodoo juju?"
Inara shrugged slightly. "They said that as punishment, the bokor ordered Jayne to seek out that which he did not have."
As one, they all turned to look at Jayne. Jayne froze, a slimy gobbet of monkey brains halfway to his open mouth. He growled and pulled the bowl closer to his chest.
"That would explain the brains," Simon said faintly.
"He couldn't have, I don't know, sought out tact?" Wash demanded. "Compassion, maybe? Or some other esoteric thing which he lacked that wasn't edible?"
"Okay," Mal said, scrambling for something that resembled logic in the face of the hoodoo. "What we gotta do now is find out what they hexed him with --"
"Already done," Inara announced. She reached down the front of her fancy dress and pulled out a small packet of something tied off with a ribbon.
Mal reached for it. "What's this?"
Reluctantly, Inara said, "Zombie powder."
"I knew it!" Wash said. "He was zombified. I am vindicated. I feel the vindication."
Simon hurried forward. "I'll just go analyze this in the infirmary."
"You do that," he told Simon, then turned back to Inara. "Do I wanna know how you got 'hold of this?"
Her smile was demure. "Trade secret."
Mal peered at her cleavage curiously. "What else you got down there?" At Inara's raised eyebrow, he continued, "Other than the obvious, I mean."
"Captain?" Zoe said, coming to stand at his elbow. "I'd quit before both feet are in your mouth, sir."
Mal leaned over to Zoe. "Am I in danger of that?"
"Perilously close, sir."
"Oh, look," Mal said loudly. "Jayne's finished off his monkey brains, and he still looks a bit peaked. Who's up for getting him another helping?"
His crew scattered like cockroaches.
"Brains," Jayne muttered at the table. He held his bowl upside down and shook it. Mal whistled to himself and tucked his thumbs under his suspenders as he walked over to the bucket of brains.
"I haven't been able to identify all of the powder's components," Simon said, holding up a clear plastic read-out. "But one of the active ingredients is a potent neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin. On Earth-That-Was, it was harvested from several marine species, so I can only assume that the settlers on this moon brought a certain genus of species with them."
"And what's that mean in Captain Dummy-Talk?" Mal asked.
"Well, the principal symptom of tetrodotoxin poisoning is paralysis, which would certainly account for Jayne's lack of motor control. There's also cyanosis, hypotension --"
"What I wanna know is can you fix him, Doc?" Mal interrupted.
Simon paused and rolled down his shirtsleeves. "I can't be certain, of course, but the symptoms should run their course in twenty-four hours."
"And then he'll be back to normal?" Mal said.
"If you call Jayne's regular behavior normal," Simon said, "then yes, I believe so."
"That's all right, then." Mal looked over to Jayne. While Jayne'd been distracted with his second helping of monkey brains, Mal had managed to tie one of his ankles to the heavy wooden table. Jayne kept trying to shuffle forward, the rope jerking him back like a dog on a chain, 'cause not even Jayne could budge that thing.
"Man-ape-gone-wrong-thing," Simon muttered darkly.
"Well," Mal said, grinning, "You are what you eat."
"What are you ruttin' waiting for?" Jayne demanded. "Untie me already!"
"What we're waiting for is the Doc to give the all clear," Mal said, sitting on the other end of the table out of Jayne's reach.
Jayne growled and yanked on the rope. The table didn't move an inch.
Mal crossed his boots at the ankle and propped 'em on the tabletop, leaning back in his chair. "Y'know, if I hadn't seen him gnawing on a hunk of brains earlier, I don't rightly know that I could tell the difference."
Jayne stopped pulling on the rope. "Brains?"
Wash shook his head. "I don't know. I think I like him better zombified."
"I kinda liked him, too," said Kaylee. "Sure, he didn't say much, and he tended to try and eat you, but he was awful sweet."
"We could've taken him on jobs," Wash said. "He'd grunt a lot, scare the townfolk. They'd run away screaming 'Don't let the zombie eat me!' at his wacky zombie hijinks."
"That'd sure make our jobs easy-peasy, what with no witnesses," Mal observed. "And the brains made him real docile-like."
"And Jayne would only have one word in his oeuvre," Wash said. "It's win-win."
"As long as those jobs didn't require any motor control," Simon said dryly.
"It'd get pretty expensive to keep Jayne in brains, though," Mal said. "Think there's a bulk supplier out there somewhere in the 'verse?"
Jayne was growing visibly more perturbed, his expression downright thunderous. "Why do you all keep jawin' on about brains?"
Mal smiled and clasped his hands over his belly. "Well, while you were zombified, you had some mighty strange cravings, Jayne."
Zoe came up behind Jayne then, leaning over his shoulder to drop a bowl of the last of the monkey brains in front of him.
"What the ruttin' hell is this?" Jayne said. "It's chou ba guai."
"Seemed to like it just fine yesterday," Zoe said.
"Is this some kinda gorram joke?" Jayne demanded, looking around.
Mal shook his head. "Might be ugly as you say, but you were stuffing 'em in your mouth like Kaylee eats fresh strawberries, and you were fit to be tied if we tried to take 'em away."
Wash leaned forward and sniffed. "Of course, they're not as fresh as they were yesterday, but they don't smell like they've turned. Well, not exactly. What's the expiration date on monkey brains, anyway?"
Jayne worked his jaw like he was tasting something funny in his mouth. And he probably was, 'cause Mal sure hadn't volunteered anyone to brush the ornery cuss's teeth. "I ate... that," he said.
Mal raised his hand. "My hand to god. And you know how well I get along with god, so that should say something."
Jayne swallowed thickly and went real pale. Mal waited to toss Zoe the knife until Jayne scrambled to his feet, sweat breaking out on his face. Zoe cut the rope keeping Jayne captive, and the big lug bolted out of the kitchen so fast his footsteps fairly smoked.
Mal watched him go. "Y'know, maybe I just got used to him being zombified, but I don't recall ever seein' Jayne move so quick."
"He may have broken land-ape speed records," Wash agreed.
A stray thought made Mal drop his feet and tap his thumb on his lower lip. "Hey, Simon. You got any of that zombie powder left?"
Simon looked suspicious. "Why do you ask?"
Mal shrugged a little. "Well, I just got to thinking it might be nice to have some around in case Jayne gets tetchy, is all."
The suspicious look cleared up, and Simon said, "I'll see about synthesizing some in the morning."
"You do that," Mal said. "Now somebody tell me what the hell we're gonna do with those leftover monkey brains?"
They all looked at the slimy clump of brains sitting on the table.
Wash looked thoughtful. "How long do you think monkey brains stay good in the freezer?"
"He eats all their brains
And he gnaws on their bones
Was never too bright
Now he's dead as the stones
Our love for this idea's not hard to explain
Who could resist him, our zombie called Jayne!"