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The Way Things Turn

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When Reavers attack Gainsborough, Simon Tam is unprepared for the level of fear and revulsion that smothers him. It's debilitating and emeticising and as he cowers in the corner of the open pharmacy safe, pills and liquiform morphine pooling beside him, he can hear the crunch of bone--dear god don't let it be teeth against bone--emanating from the narrow entrance lobby.

Simon's always been an over-thinker and rather than using this to help him get away from here, instead he's imagining what it would be like to be eaten alive. He's met survivors, if you can call them that--flesh stripped away in chunks, eyes bright with insanity--and as a clinician has secretly wondered what causes the psychosis. Are the Reavers just victims of an unknown disease? If he survives this will he slowly but surely turn cannibal, infected with some new form of retrovirus? Maybe he'll be able to document the onset and be published by medical journals before he splits his own tongue with a scalpel and demolishes the crew of Serenity for dinner. Who will he choose to rape and eat first?

The sounds coming from the open doorway are nothing short of disgusting. Garbled sentences are accompanied by this sucking, cracking, squelching abomination and if Simon closes his eyes he can picture the scene in its full horror. Keeping them open he puts his sight to better use, shuffling forward and peering out into the drug store as he checks for any possible exits that aren't smothered by a swarm of monsters. This proves to be a pointless exercise once he ascertains that there are no other ways out of the building.

As the noises grow louder Simon curls up and clutches his knees in despair. Screams of rage fill the air then there's this stupendous boom accompanied by a sudden build up of pressure in his eardrums and, after that, all he can hear is ringing and hissing. Staring fixedly at his feet, he watches globules of blood dripping in dense, dark spots onto the floor just beyond his toes and, when he finally steels himself to look up, he sees a gore-drenched humanoid looming over him. It's then he realises that he's about to find out, in intricate detail, the answers to all those questions.

"Doc. Doc, are you alright? Y'ain't been snacked on yet, have you?"

Simon is barely able to make out these words through the tinnitus, but, as realisation dawns, he stares up slack-jawed, unable to believe that he could ever be so pleased to see Jayne Cobb. Blinking from shock, he gazes at the mercenary and it's like being born again. He has a new found faith in living because the one thing that this degenerate man can do exceptionally well is survive.

"Jayne," he says with utter relief.

"Are you okay enough to make it out here on your own or do I gotta carry you?"

"I'm fine." Simon slowly comes to his senses and gets to his feet, holding on to the wall for support. "Are they gone?" he asks, peering in the direction of the entrance.

"For now, but they'll be back so's you best see how fast those stick legs of yours can move 'fore they get gnawed on," the man replies as bluntly as ever.

"Is it necessary to be so graphic?" Simon wants to say more, but he bites his tongue because, right now, the only thing standing between him and the most horrifying death imaginable is Jayne Cobb.

"Ain't necessary, but it's worth it for that pinched look on your face," grins Jayne, slapping Simon on the backside in a way that is completely inappropriate at any time but even more so in their current situation. "Get moving then."

Grabbing that big hand before it makes another unwanted assault on his body, Simon notices that blood is flowing freely. It appears that Jayne didn't escape this rescue mission without injury. When does that ever happen? The man has very little regard for his own safety.

"D'you wanna get ate?" Jayne curls his arm around Simon's waist in a gesture that once again is more than a little disconcerting.

Ignoring the ever-present desire to fix the mercenary's grammar, Simon hunts though the items on the pharmacy shelves. "Those lacerations of yours need attention." Something catches Simon's eye on one of the lower racks and, shrugging Jayne off him, he crouches down to look at the row of all purpose first aid kits -- not perfect, but better than nothing. One of those along with the meds he's already pilfered should be enough for a temporary fix until they get back home to Serenity. Has it really come to the point where he thinks of that broken down spaceship as home? Slipping the plastic box inside his bag, Simon resists the urge to leave payment.

"Doc?" Jayne's staring at him with a look of puzzlement in those sharp blue eyes. "If'n we don't get out of here now then we're gonna need a whole heap more treatment than plain old bandages. Come on."

A hand hauls Simon to his feet and then keeps hold of his arm, tugging him through the aisles of the store. "Take this," says Jayne, handing him a pistol. "Know you ain't much of a shot, but as long as you keep it aimed well away from my backside then you may hit something worthwhile."

Caught unaware, Simon is transfixed by the Armageddon-like scene of devastation inside the lobby. Body parts litter the floor, flesh blackened from explosive charges, some of it desecrated by teeth marks with muscle ripped away to the bone.

"Don't look too hard," says Jayne and it's a worthwhile recommendation. The only time Simon dares to glance down is when his foot makes hard contact with a ball like object and he watches in horror as a head spins away from him coming to rest in a pile of mangled cadavers. It has its eyes sewn shut.

The noises from outside grow louder and Jayne spits out instructions in a low voice. "We're gonna have to fight our way out, Doc. I got a mule outside and a plan to head west toward them mines we saw when we was landing."

"What about Serenity?" says Simon. River's on board and he must get back to her as soon as possible. She's stable now but she still needs him.

"That part of town's been cut off from us. They'll be safe where they are though." Jayne gives Simon's arm a quick squeeze and a second later he's out of the doors, firing off rounds from his assault rifle like a real soldier. Sometimes Simon forgets that Jayne is a real soldier when it counts.

"Mule's still there," yells Jayne. "You up for driving it so's I can keep picking off these hundan?"

"Yes," replies Simon, because one look at the army of cannibals that's approaching tells him that he's prepared for anything that might keep them intact for a while longer.

Slipping the strap of the canvas bag over his head like a satchel, Simon fires his pistol at the horde of creatures, trying not to notice they way they fight like demons over their own dying.

"Don't look," repeats Jayne, encouraging him to move speedily towards the vehicle with a guiding hand on the small of his back.

Can he actually drive one of these things? wonders Simon as he climbs astride the mule. Jayne follows suit except that he's facing the other way around, leaning precariously over the rear safety bar as he unhitches the empty trailer with one hand and fires at the Reavers with the other.

"Follow the track up into them hills."

Simon takes note of where Jayne's pointing and does as he's asked, feet and hands intuitively working together to operate the vehicle. It's a long way to the mine and the terrain becomes increasingly dangerous, but concentrating on driving helps takes his mind off the blanket of fear that's been smothering him for hours. He tries not to freak out too much when one of the Reavers' harpoons makes a direct hit on the mule and the machine grinds to a terrifying halt in a shower of blue sparks. Not enamoured by the idea of exploding into a ball of fire, Simon leaps free and rolls over and over in the dirt, ending up lying next to the mercenary.

"Run," yells Jayne, scrabbling to get to his feet and for the first time ever there's undiluted fear present in the man's voice.

Simon moves instinctively through the boulders, knowing without looking that the Reavers have disembarked from their transporter and are close on their tail; he can tell precisely where they are from that putrid scent that's being carried on the breeze. Slithering back down the track on a small avalanche of shale he's horrified to discover, when he looks up, that Jayne has vanished from sight. For a moment Simon is left alone and it's only fierce pride that stops him from urinating in his pants, but then the mercenary's face appears from a narrow opening in the rock.

"Are you coming, or are you planning on serving yourself up to them for supper?"

That sudden, toothy grin restores Simon's nascent faith and he follows the mercenary through the shroud of foliage and on into a roughly hewn tunnel.

"Rutting miracle I found this place," says Jayne, holding up a miniature flashlight he's taken from one of his myriad pockets and peering ahead of him into the darkness. "One of the secondary shafts maybe," he adds a little dubiously.

Too small, thinks Simon. More likely it's an emergency escape exit or evidence of much earlier mining; however this isn't the time to nitpick.

Whilst Jayne is checking out what lies ahead Simon's eyes are fixed on the circle of murky daylight behind them. "Will they find us in here?" he asks.

"Reckon not," says Jayne. "As long as luck stays on our side and they don't got your fancy scent in their nostrils."

The hint of a tense smile does nothing to reassure Simon. "And if they have?" he asks.

"Then we're humped, Doc."

This sentence turns out to be all too prescient as the natural light from the entrance diminishes and grunted half-words echo down the tunnel.

"Take the Maglite and get in front of me," breathes Jayne in a voice that's so tight and dry that Simon can tell he's on the verge of panic. Everyone knows that the only thing likely to give Jayne a severe case of the heebie-jeebies is a Reaver attack.

Obeying instruction without argument, Simon squeezes past the mercenary, grazing his forearm on the craggy surface of the rock in the process. Jayne feels solid and warm behind him and this quick reminder of humanity is a comfort, especially when surrounded by cold, dank horror.

As Reavers swarm up the passageway towards them, all Simon can hear is a frantic rattling of bullets and then a dull clunk as Jayne reloads a few steps behind him. He's racing as fast as his legs will carry him, skidding on the wet surface as the tunnel takes a steep downturn into the bowels of the mountain.

"Tell me which way to go," gasps Jayne as he slams backwards into the rock face for a second time.

Simon does his best to give directions. "Duck," he shouts when there's a sudden restriction of height. "To your left then down," he yells although he's fully aware that this desperate attempt to escape is pointless. The Reavers are gaining ground; that sweet, noxious smell is filling his lungs and he knows if he breathes in any more of it then he's going to vomit. Hysteria builds until he's on the verge of giving up and throwing himself into their scarified arms, but the dull thud and muffled yelp from behind him acts as a wake up call and he looks back in horror to see Jayne pinned to the ground by two snarling shapes. Praying for guidance, Simon aims both flashlight and pistol with shaky hands and then pulls the trigger again and again until the gun is empty.

Inexplicably, Jayne survives the shower of bullets. Dragging himself free from the two bodies the man stumbles to his feet and looks back at Simon, his face an eerie mask in the bluish, halogen light. "Y'aint gonna like this, Doc," he says, his fist making a controlled underarm swing. "Get 'round the corner and down. Quick."

Simon runs like the wind then slams himself to the ground, knowing what's coming and hating the idea precisely the way Jayne had predicted. Lying prone, cheek pressed tight against the cold, wet floor, he grunts as a heavy body lands over him in a protective covering. When the grenade explodes there's this thunderous echo as rocks tumble to the ground and Simon knows, prays that this is how his days are going to end, because it could all be so much worse.

They remain still for the longest time, cloaked in pitch darkness, until Simon is suddenly filled with belief that the mercenary has died in the blast and he's been left here all alone. "Jayne," he whispers urgently, trying to move and feeling pain blossom in his outstretched arms. "Jayne!"

The warm body that's smothering him shifts to one side and Simon fumbles around for the flashlight, hoping against hope that it still works. Shaking it causes light to flood into the narrow passage and he directs the beam at his companion. "Are you alright?" Vocal cords tense up and his voice comes out as little more than a creak. Suppose Jayne isn't alright. What will he do then?

"'M okay. Just shook up some," comes the answer and Simon heaves a sigh of relief.

Jayne shifts slowly until he's leaning against the cave wall. "What can you see?" he asks.

Simon pulls himself to a standing position in hope that his muscles will stop trembling sometime in the near future. Aiming the flashlight, he peers into the black hole that lies ahead of them. "More of the same."

"Well then, we best get moving before the batteries run out."

Jayne lets out this soft grunt of pain as he gets to his feet and Simon's worry increases tenfold.

"Are you certain you're alright?"

"Bashed up a little is all, Doc, but we ain't got time to think about that now." Jayne takes the flashlight from him and forges ahead down the passageway, almost bent double as the ceiling height lowers some more. "They weren't wrong about dwarves being miners, I reckon," he says with a stilted laugh that ricochets off the rock face.

Simon follows close on his heels, weighing up in his mind how much danger they're actually in. Things don't appear to be good. They're buried alive in an unknown part of the mine with no food and a light source that won't last for long. "Do we have spare batteries?" he asks.

"Nope." Jayne lets out this huff of concern. "I got one smaller Maglite and that's it. If we need to rest then we do it in darkness, dong ma?"

Simon bites back another facetious answer. It irks him the way Jayne always treats him like a fool over any kind of practical matter. He's a trauma surgeon for god's sake--how much more practical can you get?--and yet in Jayne's eyes he appears to be less useful than one of Wash's dinosaurs.

They carry on walking at fast pace until the passageway widens out into a junction and then splits in two. Looking from one tunnel to the other Jayne sighs and then sinks down into a squat. "Want something to eat?" he asks, not waiting for an answer, just snapping the protein bar in half then passing a piece over. Simon takes it gratefully and crouches next to the big man, avoiding the trickle of water that runs along the ground. They might be glad of that soon enough.

They eat their meagre rations cloaked in darkness and sombre silence. "What do we do now?" asks Simon when the quiet begins to get to tear at his already shredded nerves.

Jayne laughs bitterly. "Was hoping your book smarts would help us out here," he says. "One of the passages goes down steeper than the other. Which do you reckon we should try first?"

Isn't that typical? Finally the mercenary values Simon's opinion when he's totally out of his depth and lost in some caves on an unfamiliar planet. He's about to make a snappy retort about Jayne's bad sense of timing when something niggles at the back of his mind. "Do you carry a cigar lighter on you?" he asks.

"Well yeah, but having a smoke ain't gonna help us out of here." The mercenary's tone is derisory and Simon can imagine the eye rolling that's going on.

"Hand it to me," he says patiently, pretending that it's River he's dealing with. "The Maglite too."

Grumbling a little, Jayne passes over the items and, again, Simon gains a surprising amount of comfort from that bigger hand resting against his. He's never been afraid of the dark, however he does suffer from slight claustrophobia and being lost inside this mine is pushing him close to madness.

Simon stands up and switches on the flashlight then approaches the right hand tunnel, flicking on the lighter and holding the flame into the opening. Sidestepping to his left he raises the lighter and the flame is instantly extinguished. "This way," he says, feeling rather cocky.

"What in the hell?"

Simon points the beam of light towards Jayne who's slowly and painfully getting to his feet. The eerie, pale light is probably the reason for the greyish tinge to Jayne's skin, but Simon's physician instincts kick in and he desperately wants to give the man a check up and tend to some of those wounds. Unfortunately they haven't the time.

"The airflow shows that the exit's closer in this direction," he explains, and to be honest he feels far too much pride at the impressed look on Jayne's face. "It's just something I read once."

"Something gorram useful." That brilliant smile is back on Jayne's face and, grabbing the flashlight, he charges down the passageway at full pelt with Simon struggling to keep up behind him.

The tunnel widens out and things are beginning to seem cautiously optimistic when Jayne comes to sudden halt and Simon runs smack into him. The man is a wall of solid muscle; the impact hurts and he's about to complain when Jayne pulls him close against his body and slaps a dirty palm over his mouth. Words whisper breathy against his ear and Simon breaks out into a rash of gooseflesh.

"If'n you don't want to get raped and ate then you keep quiet, dong ma?"

Listening carefully, Simon can hear the thing that stopped Jayne dead in his tracks. From the distance comes a muted cacophony of Reaver sounds that's frightening enough to bring a rush of bile to his throat.

"Stay here," whispers Jayne, letting Simon go. "You can keep this with you." He hands over the torch then, having extracted a tiny penlight from one of his many pockets, he's off into the darkness leaving Simon all on his own, surrounded by a stifling silence that's broken only by the drip-drip-drip of seep water.

For the first time in years Simon's overwhelmed by the urge to cry and this comes as a shock because he didn't think he had it in him any more. Over the course of time, the business with River has wrung every emotion out of him until there's nothing left inside but practical solutions to problematic issues. Or so he thought until today. Breath clattering in his throat he wrenches back the tears, praying hard that Jayne will come back to him soon.

Time passes--far too much time--and unable to cope Simon shuts down. Collapsing into a niche in the rock he switches off the light to conserve batteries and, with eyes closed, sinks back into the comforting memories of his pampered, carefree childhood.