Chapter Three: The Morally Ambiguous Motives of Scientists

Osiris: 2515

Illyria watched the girl dance. Such fluid motion, she had a natural grace to rival the long extinct slayers. Just lacking their power. The girl's eyes glinted with delight. Illyria glanced around. The audience was enraptured, as well they should be. Over the eons Illyria had seen other gifted children, but this one—this one was a true prodigy. Illyria's lips twitched, smiling.

Spike sat beside her, his bat-like features cloaked in the shadows. He watched the dance unblinkingly. Illyria could see the approval in his eyes, and something else, a deep sadness. Perhaps he was lost in memory. Remembering another dark haired beauty who once danced beneath the stars. Onstage the tempo increased, and the girl continued to dance faster and faster, her form immaculate. Illyria nodded to herself. Yes, River Tam would do.

Serenity: January 2519

"Have we met before," Simon asked. Fred leaned back from the controls.

"Don't think so," she said. "Maybe in a dream. " She smirked. "but I wouldn't tell Kaylee that."

"What? No I-I didn't mean…"

"Relax Simon. I'm only joking. "

"Still," Simon said. "You seem very familiar."

Fred shrugged. "I get that a lot," she said. Simon frowned at her.

"There you are," Kaylee poked her head through the hatch. "Come on Simon, the Capt'n wants a word."

"A word?" Simon's voice was apprehensive. It was his patented 'what has River done now?' tone.

"Yeah," Kaylee said brightly, but her smile seemed a little forced. "With the crew."
"Don't worry Simon," Fred added. "Most likely just wants to have himself a little pow-wow about me."

"Now I'm sure that ain't—" Kaylee broke off, as Fred swiveled around her eyebrows raised. "Sorry sweetie, I'm sure he don't mean anything by it. He's just…"

"Relax, I ain't bothered. Besides," Fred smiled. "I've got nothing to hide." Kaylee smiled back. Fred waved as the other two left. Then she was alone with the black. The instruments beeped their mechanical music in time to Serenity's dance among the stars.

"I know you're here," she said at length. River emerged from the shadows.

"Location is a mathematical fallacy," River said. "Input varies, the calculations are riddled with redundancies." Fred shrugged her eyes still on the controls. "Two locations intersect, perpendicular lines form a right angle. We've met before," River walked softly and peered down studying Fred from above. "Dreaming envelops and lops back on memory. Is familiarity an illusion, the phantom of neurons firing, a delusion of the corpus callosum? You're a liar," she told Fred solemnly. "A facsimile, not a real girl."

"Neither are you," Fred answered, and she should know.

The Academy: January 2517

River's face was covered in blood.

"I see you," she said into the camera. Illyria tilted her head and studied her most prized student. Little River Tam had killed her interviewer with a pen. Dr. Mathias would not be pleased, but Illyria smiled a cold reptilian smile and felt something almost akin to pride. The girl was incredible, even more than she had ever dreamed. Yes River Tam would more than do. Illyria had wanted Spike to lead her armies in the coming war, but River would make a worthy replacement. This little slip of a girl danced when she fought, as Spike had done so long ago. Illyria nodded slightly and gave the order. On the screen she could see the guards rush in to subdue River. Illyria hoped the subject would resist. It would give her further opportunity to assess her skill.

Illyria frowned softly in the dark. It had been a long lonely road from that alley to here. The Earth-That-Was, the crowning jewel in her ancient empire was lost to the void. These spinning moons and planets were as much Earth as she was Fred, and it showed. She had felt the first hints, long ago, even as she took her first steps on Londinium. She had not understood then, the doom that was approaching. Lesser demons and witches had felt it first, a weariness deep in their bones. Magic faded slowly day by day. Charmed objects and hexes faded into dust becoming mundane and ordinary. Fledglings grew weaker and lethargic before entropy had consumed leaving nothing but ash. As the remnants of the supernatural had faded, Spike remained. He survived by force of will, his and Illyria's. But Illyria knew it would not last forever. Sooner or later Spike would turn to dust. She knew it, even as she knew that he was but the precursor of her own fate. Oh her will was strong, her powers great…but already she could feel the effects. It might take another thousand years but her doom was approaching.

No! She would not fade away. Not Illyria God-King of the Prymordium, Shaper of Things. Demon lords, and gods had knelt at her feet and sworn fealty, no she would not go quietly. Answers lay in science, in the girl and others like her. Her shell had once been knowledgeable about such things. Well she would need that knowledge now, for her sake…and for Spike's. But if this doom was unavoidable, then she would not face the end as some unknown being, nor as the ruthless Dr. Winifred Burkle. No if it was her fate too be consumed by entropy, then she would die as Illyria ruler of all the worlds and this pathetic little Alliance would be reshaped in her image. She glanced down at the screen where little River danced her lethal dance with the guards, and smiled.

Serenity: January 2519

River sat in the copilot seat, with her knees hugged to her chest. She studied Fred closely.

"Scratch the shell," River said. "and the rats come scurrying out to and fro. There are words and confusion, and dreams. Some of it can be organized placed in little boxes, cross-referenced under time of death, but some of it can't be quantified, stamped and numbered. Some thoughts don't have authorization to be thought, just little fish dancing in a desert…it's dark where you are. Nothing but shell and shadows, silence and secrets."

Fred shrugged. "It's not my shell that matters," she replied. "It's yours."

"What's under my shell?"

"You tell me," Fred said.

The Academy: May 2517

Simon glanced around, desperately trying to hide his nervousness. Someone must have noticed…but no. Everyone's eyes were firmly fixed at their screens. Dr. Mathias was chattering away, fawning all over him with fake smiles. It was probably important, what he was saying, but Simon was having trouble paying attention. Because there she was…River. At last after all this time. She'd grown. He covered up a wince, as she cried out in pain. Oh mei mei. He wanted to rush over and hold her close, but it wasn't time yet. He had to wait, just a little longer. Maybe he could figure out what they were doing.

"Allow me to introduce one of our more brilliant minds, Dr. Burkle," Mathias said. She studied him as if he was the experiment, not River. Her eyes, god her eyes. Icy blue, unnatural. Then the moment passed, and she looked away. Key members of Parliament. Gao yang jong duh goo yang! He knew that the Academy had influential backers…but Parliament itself. He hadn't dared believe, but here was the proof. Oh River…Unnoticed by him, Dr. Burkle slipped quietly out of the room.

Serenity: January 2519

"She's a mite queer I must admit," Mal said. "Folks are entitled to a few secrets of their own, but it seems to me she's got more of them then I'm comfortable with."

"I don't trust her," Zoe said. "She's awful convenient with all those skills of hers. Too convenient."

"Well I like her," said Jayne.

"And that in itself is worrisome," said Mal.

Jayne frowned. "Hey," he cried.

Inara sighed softly. "She's not what she appears. She tries to hide it, but sometimes she makes mistakes."

"What's she hiding," Zoe asked.

"I don't know, but she's not all sweetness and light."

Kaylee arrived with the doctor in tow. They sat slowly. "I think she's kindly," said Kaylee. "And she makes tacos." Jayne grunted in agreement. Simon frowned but didn't say anything.

"There's no question she's got skeletons in her cupboard. Ain't no one at this table who doesn't." said Mal. "Question's as to whether her secret's gonna hurt ours. From what she's said, I gather there was a time that Fred was a slave. Probably on one of the border planets. Explains a lot. Border barons ain't a friendly bunch as a rule. Slaves need a great many skills to survive." Mal glared, as Jayne leered. "And not necessarily the skills you're thinking of."

"Man can think can't he?" Jayne leaned back smiling blissfully. Inara rolled her eyes.

"Interesting's how she got here," said Zoe. "If you're right…well there ain't many ways out for a slave, and all of them are bloody." She met Mal's eyes.

"Aw…I don't think Fred could hurt any body," Kaylee said.

"I do," said Inara.

Mal nodded. "All this speculating is mighty interesting, but it don't answer the question proper. Does she represent a danger to this boat?"

"She's been taking an unhealthy interest in River," Simon spoke for the first time.

"Noticed that," said Mal. "But then, no offense Doc, the girl's a mite difficult to miss. Still that speaks to leaving her behind. Contract's up at the end of the month. Could be we let her go after that. Find ourselves a shiny new pilot." Simon frowned then sat up suddenly, all the color draining from his face. "Got something to add Doc?"

"I remember…I remember where I saw her before," he looked at Mal, his eyes wide. "The Academy!"

""Lao-tyen, boo," Mal cursed.

"What," said Jayne.

"She's a fed."


"Fred," said Mal. "is a gorramn fed!"

"What do you want," River asked softly. Fred paused. Leaning back, she swiveled to face her.

"To conquer all and never die," was the reply. Clear confident and determined. A world away from Fred's usually bubbly voice.

River studied her intently. "That is way of all things. Everything has its time. Entropy increases…nothing lasts forever," she said.

"Perhaps you are correct," Fred said. "Perhaps…" She took a deep breath. "And do you want, little River?"

"To be River, not an animal, not prey. To be a girl, solid through," River paused. "To be left lone."

Fred tilted her head. Her gaze piecing deep into River's soul, as if searching. Brown meet blue eyes and for a moment it seemed as though the universe was completely still. Silence. "Done," Fred said at length. Then she smiled. River smiled back.

"Get the hell away from her," shouted Simon. River and Fred turned. In the doorway stood Mal, Jayne, and Zoe. All their guns trained firmly on Fred. Simon was right behind them, looking angrier then anyone had ever seen him.

"Now fellas. There ain't no need for this," said Fred her accent suddenly thick. "We were just having a nice little conversation."

"The only conversation you're gonna be having, is what in goramn hell you're doing on my boat. No more rutting secrets!"

Fred studied them for a moment then smiled. "As you wish." She stood in a single fluid motion, almost faster then the eye could follow. Her body began to morph. Her clothes were replaced by some form of leather armor. She stood taller, her skin paler, her eyes even more blue. This was Illyria, God-King of the Prymordium, revealed in all her glory. There was a chill in the room now, and the very air seemed to whisper promises of mutilation and despair. It took all of Mal's will just to stop his hand from shaking. In the corner, River curled up into a ball and screamed, and screamed, and screamed.