Serenity comes across a drifting spacecraft—a short-range scow converted to a settler transport to the Outer Planets. Mal (Jason Fillion) decides to check it out, either to help any survivors or loot the dead. He sends his crew off in teams, and he and Zoe (Gina Torres) look into a section that may contain valuable supplies.
They are followed into a room by River (Summer Glau), who is herself following the screams in her head, and she shows them mutilated bodies hanging from the ceiling. Mal knows this is Reavers’ work and orders the crew to regroup in the engine room. But Jayne (Adam Baldwin) is hit from behind. He shoots the attacker four times before going down. Mal finds the wounded man (Brandon Morgan) hiding behind an air-grate and they bring him back to the ship.
Doctor Tam (Sean Maher) treats the wounded man, apparently the last survivor of a Reaver attack. The Reavers, Mal explains, were driven insane by seeing the nothingness at the edge of the galaxy and are capable of unspeakable acts. Shepherd Book (Ron Glass) says a few words over the victims, while engineer Kaylee (Jewel Staite) removes a booby trap that has attached itself to Serenity.
With the cargo aboard, Serenity starts to leave, but is stopped by an Alliance Cruiser. The Feds board the ship and find everyone but River and Simon waiting for them. The salvaged cargo is in plain sight. Alliance Commander Harken (Doug Savant) accuses them of harboring fugitives and detains them for questioning.
He interviews each crewmember while his teams tend to the survivor and search the ship. The Doctor and River are outside the ship in spacesuits, clinging to the hull, Simon worried, River gazing in awe at the stars. Harken accuses Mal of attacking the settlers, pointing out that the survivor’s tongue is split to keep him from speaking. But Mal realizes that the survivor is sufficiently traumatized to become a Reaver himself and self-mutilation is common among them.
As Harken prepares to place Mal in custody, he is informed that the survivor has killed the whole medical team and is loose on the ship. Mal says he knows where the fugitive will go and leads Harken and troops back to Serenity. The survivor attacks the soldiers, but Mal kills the Reaver, saving Harken’s life. Having nothing to hold Mal for, Harken confiscates the cargo and lets Serenity go. The Cruiser destroys the derelict ship.
According to Joss Whedon, Inara’s syringe is medicine, not for suicide as some speculate, because she is dying. The derelict ship is from an old Mighty Morphin Power Rangers episode. When they examine the survivor, there is dialogue taken directly from the movie Aliens. The Cruiser is Tohoku-Class. River’s cryptic mumblings are beginning to make a kind of sense. Later they will have meaning. Some wonder why Harken has so little information on the fugitives he’s looking for. It seems that the authorities are anxious to keep the whole matter as secret as possible.