River says the sky is falling. That's how it starts. Watch it crumble, she whispers, and laughs.

00000

"They're coming!" she screams. "They're coming and it's too late to run."

Simon grabs her wrists, trying to still her, trying to get her to focus on him. "It's okay. I'm not going to let anything happen to you. Go with Kaylee, she'll take you back to the ship."

River's eyes flicker to Kaylee for a moment. She's standing off to the side. She's shaking, but she smiles like its okay. It's not.

"Would you shut that gorram girl up?" Jayne hisses. "I got a mind to shoot her."

Simon glares at him, but doesn't waste time with angry words. Jayne won't shoot her. He knows he'd be next, the way Mal and Zoe are glaring at him with pistols in their hands. "River, go with Kaylee. I'll be right behind you. It's going to be okay."

"You lie," River says, sobbing. "You're lying to me. You think I can't tell, but I know."

Simon shook his head. "I'm not lying," he promises. "Now go."

"You only think you're not lying," River tells him tearfully. Kaylee grabs her hand and starts to pull her away. Zoe takes the rear, her eyes scanning everything. "Only tell them the truth, Simon," she calls back desperately. "Tell them everything they ask. I'll be nearer than you think."

Once Kaylee, River and Zoe were out of sight, Jayne turns to glare at him. "That girl's giving me a headache. I don't like people screaming about how we're all gonna die."

"Imagine that," Simon says dryly. Mal grabs his arm before he can say anything else, and spins him around.

"What exactly is the plan here, Doc?" he snaps.

Simon frowns. "I thought we were clear on that. You're going to head back to Serenity and get my sister as far from here as you can."

"And just where do you fit into that?" Mal demands.

"Do we care?" Jayne asks thinly, but is ignored.

"I'm going to draw them away," Simon tells them. "I'm the only one besides River that can, because they don't want any of you. If we all leave they'll chase us. Someone needs to stall them."

"That's a stupid plan," Mal says. "We run. Ain't like we've never outrun them before."

But River has said it's too late for running. She's rarely wrong.

00000

Two by two, River says. Hands of blue. She's the only one that knows what it means, but the others will learn soon enough.

00000

They call it Aphelion. Farthest from the sun, Simon explained. The entire planet was grey. Most were made of blues and browns and greens, but this one was all different shades of grey. The sky. The dust. The clouds. It probably should have tipped them off. Trouble was brewing from the start.

They're still not sure who called the Feds, but it's not like it matters. They're all of them dead.

They had screamed like the men back on Ariel, and blood seeped out under the door behind them as they slipped away. A fine mess, one might say. At least River was safe for now. Anyone could guess how long it would last.

Jayne runs when he can, faster than they could manage as they were thrown to the ground with a stun blast. He's an opportunist, but they don't blame him. Not that they'd have done the same, but they forgave Jayne these things. He wasn't them.

The men don't chase him. They stay unmoving, like statues, emotionless and blank. They have what they want. Half of it, anyway, and it's closer then they've been yet. They're not going to get greedy and risk what they've gained until they have more Intel. Tactics, tactics.

Mal Reynolds is extra baggage and an unexpected variable, but they're not the type to let a potential asset go to waste.

"Bind them," one says.

"Careful," says the other.

00000

If they were dead, River would know. It's really not as comforting as one might think.

00000

The room is six by six and ten feet tall. They don't know why they've been kept together. Their captors are not exactly receptive to questions.

"Well, this . . . is not good," Mal says.

Simon refrains from sarcasm, but only barely. "We're going to die," he says.

Mal winces. "Thanks for the pep talk, Doc."

"I should have listened to River," he says. "She knew this would happen."

Mal places his hands against the seamless walls. They woke up here, and have yet to find a door. The walls were blue, just like their hands.

"You should have left when I told you," Simon says. "You shouldn't be here."

"But you should?" Mal snaps gruffly. A year ago, maybe, he might have believed that. A year ago Simon hadn't laid a hopeless siege on a madman to save to his life. Perspectives have a habit of changing.

"Yes," Simon says. "I'm the one that stole from them. I'm the one they want."

"You're not the one they want," Mal says, shaking his head. "She is."

"Well they can't have her," Simon tells him roughly. "So they'll have to settle for me."

Smoke curls up from the ground, and they both drop like stones. It becomes routine, after awhile.

00000

There was a game they used to play. Theories. Probabilities. She didn't always win. Sometimes she let him win. He takes so much looking after.

00000

Simon wakes up in a chair like the one they used on River. Mal isn't to be seen, but he figures all things considered, that's probably for the best. He hopes Mal isn't dead, but he's not above wishing he himself were.

"Where is River Tam?" one asks. His eyes are dead, and Simon blinks to escape them. He can't get far. They seep through the skin.

The question is a comfort, though. Serenity has escaped them. He doesn't risk a smile. "I honestly don't know," he says. He's glad he doesn't. He doesn't know if he'll hold out, or for how long. He's seen what torture can do to a person back on Osiris, he tried to put him together again and failed.

"He's telling the truth," the other says.

"Shock him anyway," says the first.

The pain is blinding.

00000

They scared her because their minds held no thoughts. There was an order to things. They didn't question. They don't blink when her brother screams. They care for nothing.

00000

"You don't look so hot," Mal tells him.

It's accurate. He's freezing. "How long have we been here?" he asks.

Mal frowns. "I woke up about four hours ago and you were gone. They dragged you back here about ten minutes ago. The wall moves. I don't think we'll be able to escape from here."

Simon didn't think they would escape at all, but he kept his pessimism to himself. "Do you think we're at the Academy?" he asks.

"Why do you ask that?" Mal asks, glancing around the small cell.

"Because I think we're at the Academy," he says breathlessly. He doesn't know how every part of him can feel like it's on fire, and he can still be this cold.

Mal sighs. "Well, does it really matter?"

Simon shakes his head. "No, not really." But it does.

00000

They said it was a game, River says. They told her she would like it and that she would learn more than she could ever want to know. They were only half right.

00000

After three hours, three days, three years, whichever, either or, he's not sure because he's lost count and there's no way to tell time in their small blue room, they're taken somewhere else. It's blue also. Simon has begun to hate the color. It's irrational, and the color of his homeworld's sky, but he can't stand it any longer.

"We can see force will get us nowhere," one says. Simon has stopped trying to tell them apart.

"We thought we would appeal to your better nature," says the other. He places pictures of dead men in a row on the table. One has his throat slit straight across. Another has been disemboweled. Simon can't stand to look at the rest.

Mal studies each one and gives nothing away. "So?" he says. "We kind of already get it. The threats, I mean. Is this supposed to scare us?"

"Yes," says the first. Or the second. One of them. They really should wear different color gloves so people can tell them apart.

Mal laughs lightly. "Okay," he says. "I'm terrified. Well and truly. Now how's about you take us back to our cell so I can continue my busy day of dreaming up different ways to kill you?"

The other steps forward. "Your River Tam did this," he says. "Within ninety seconds. Fifteen men."

Simon looks at his hands, he had expected them to say that. Chances are, it's true. Mal just crosses his arms and stares them down. "Good for her," he says. "Too bad she missed the two of you."

"We're the sweepers," one of them says. "We weren't here then. She'll kill again, if you don't help us stop her."

"There's no telling what she'll do. Maybe she'll kill your crew, Captain Reynolds," says the others. "Maybe she'll kill your friends."

Simon looks up, his eyes blazing. "Maybe she'll kill you."

"This meeting is over," says one.

"Force will obviously be necessary after all," says the other.

"Pity," says the first, and smiles. It's the first expression they've seen. It's not reassuring at all.

00000

Perihelion, River says. It's the antonym, means closest to the sun. No one named a planet that. No one would want to go there.

00000

They're taken back to their cell. Simon's clothes are torn and he's still freezing, but Mal looks like he's holding up fairly well under the circumstances. They've been here only four days. He caught a glimpse of the date on a cortex as they were ushered through the walls. It said 'Blue Sun Corporation' above the screen.

He remembers seeing that in the Academy, but he's still not certain if that's where they are. They could be on a ship for all he knew. They might still be on Aphelion, though he doubts it.

"They're going to kill me," Mal says. "To get to you. I can tell. It's their next strategy."

Simon isn't sure he's wrong about that. "That won't work," he says. "They should know that."

"Yeah, well, they don't know you like I do," Mal says. "We've got to get out of here."

Simon sinks down to sit on the hard floor. He can barely walk. "If you get the chance, you should run."

"It's too late to run," Mal says, echoing River. "We've got to fight."

Simon still feels the aftershocks of his latest session of questioning--he's lost count of them, too. They always ask him the same things. He's stopped answering altogether, and just rides the shocks out until the men grow bored. We'll find her, they always say, with or without you. If that's the case he doesn't see why they can't leave him alone.

Not that he believes they stand a chance on their own. They won't snare his sister twice. He might be expendable but she's far too smart for them.

"Simon," Mal snaps, but behind the anger there is genuine concern. That frightens him more than anything. "Are you still with me?"

"Two by two," he says. "Hands of blue."

Mal kneels down in front of him. "Don't you start talking gibberish now," he snaps. "Stay with me."

"They wear gloves because they're unfinished," he tells him, frowning, glancing away. "It was the best that could be done. You can't kill them even if you try."

"What the--" Mal angrily gets to his feet. "Don't tell me they've gone and made you crazy too."

Simon shakes his head. "No. I'm not crazy." If anything, he's far too sane.

00000

She didn't understand before. Her brother compliments her. He figures out the riddles she can't. There is still a way to save them, River says.

00000

The next day they're dragged back to that same room. The men stand across from them. The pictures of corpses are still spread across the table, in the same positions, like grotesque confetti. Simon does his best to pretend they're not there. He tries not to picture his sister killing them, and instead tries to remember her doing ballet.

"Do you know what this is, Dr. Tam?" one asks. He holds up a thin blue and black rod. It spins in his hand. It extends at a touch.

"I haven't seen one before," he says honestly.

"Of course you haven't," says the other. "You're still alive."

"Do you want to die, Dr. Tam?" asks one. "What will it accomplish? What will all your suffering amount to if you die now? Painfully, like this?"

Simon grins tiredly. "I should think that would be fairly obvious. I've gotten River away from you. Quite an accomplishment, that."

"But see; you have kept nothing from us," says the other. "We don't need you anymore."

Simon tensed. "What?"

"Bring her," says the first.

A guard drags River in. She isn't fighting. She's calm. Serene, even. Simon's heart drops. "No," he whispered. "No, River . . ."

Mal grabs his arm to keep him sitting. Fighting won't do any good now.

"Take her away," says the other. "I thought I would allow you to see her one last time. It was a courtesy I did not have to make, I hope you appreciate it."

River winks at him as she slips out the door. The guard's grip is not tight at all.

Then, in an instant, neither of them can think anymore. A slight buzzing comes out from the thin rod, slicing through them both. Beside him, Mal reaches to hold onto the table but loses his grip, and falls to the ground. Blood slips down from his nose, curling past his lips.

Simon feels like his brain is splitting. He wonders if River has ever felt like this, and hopes not.

It stops as quickly as it begins. The device shuts down without warning, and the two men freeze in perfect time. They're heads drop. They're hands fall to their sides. They don't move.

The door opens again and River and the guard reappear. The guard tips her hat up, and rushes forward. "Sir? Sir, are you alright?"

Mal struggles to regain his footing. "Zoë?" he snaps incredulously.

River kneels beside her brother, taking his hands, measuring his pulse. "You'll live," she informs him. "Don't do that again."

Mal struggles to his feet, pointing at the men blankly. "Wha--?"

"We just had Jayne set off an EM pulse," Zoë explains. "It shut down the power for miles. Wash took Serenity into high orbit, so she won't be affected, but he'll be back for us any minute now."

"Okay, but . . ." He motions to the two men, silently asking for more information.

Simon gets to his feet weakly, and River pulls one of his arms over her shoulders to hold him up. "They're robots," he says. "It's why it doesn't affect them. They can't absorb that frequency."

Mal turns to him accusingly. "You knew that?" Simon shrugs tiredly. He wasn't sure it made that much of a difference.

"It's why they don't think," River says. She reaches out a hand, and gently knocks them both to the ground. "They compute."

Mal frowns down at them, wavering on his feet. "What are we going to do about them, then? About this place?"

"Torch it," River says. "It's not like they can scream."

00000

River says the sky is burning. That's how it stops. Watch it shimmer, she whispers, and lights a match.