Author's Note: This is a long chapter. Very long. 11,000 words, to be precise, probably one of the longest chapters I've written for this story (probably a short story in and of itself). This is also a River-centric interlude, so expect to see copious amounts of Riverthink.
This chapter is also somewhat more angsty than is usual for me. There are flashbacks here to some quite momentous and painful moments in River's life.
Fourth Interlude: Alone
The ocean was a novel experience. Warm water tickled her toes as she walked down the yellow-white beach, sand sticking to her soles. A blue sky poked in between gray and white clouds overhead, but it was warm and the surf smelled of salt and foam. A greater sum of trill-creds had been spent on terraforming Osiris than many of the other Core worlds, so it benefited from a truly Earth-That-Was beach and ocean that was supposed to be as close to the original as possible.
She ran the economic expenditures in her head and weighed them against what benefits might have been given to planetary infrastructure as she sloshed through the surf, laughing and chasing after her brother.
"Simon, wait!" she cried, following him down the beach. His legs were longer than hers, and he was bigger and older, so he pulled out ahead. She was catching up to him in the growth department, being exactly seventeen hours after her twelfth birthday, but he was still so much older and stronger and smarter. He was already a doctor, after all.
"Hurry up, slowpoke!" Simon yelled to her. His voice still surprisingly high-pitched despite his size. He'd never have a deep voice, she suspected, but from this vantage point on the temporal spectrum, she could see the man he would eventually turn into: lean, dark-haired, handsome. Never tall and probably never heavily-built, but brilliant enough to get any girl he could ever want.
She wanted to be him. She couldn't hope catch up, but she would be as close to the person he would be as possible.
She kept chasing him down the beach, when a particularly strong wave came rushing in and hit her across the knees. She gasped as the warm ocean water ran up past her thighs, soaking her up to her waist, and it knocked her legs out from under her. She toppled forward into the foamy water.
Warmth embraced her, shooting up her nose, and she was blinded for a moment by stinging salt water. It swept out just a moment later, pulling her a dozen centimeters with it.
She sat up and sneezed the water out of her nose, arms and legs and dress covered in wet sand and soaked completely. She shook her head, throwing water about, and then started laughing.
"River, come back away from the water!"
She looked up at her mother's voice, and saw both their parents further up the beach, sitting out on a towel and umbrella, wearing their conservative "I don't want to have any fun" swimwear. Papa was working on his source box and computer even now, not looking up at her.
She felt Simon close in before she heard him, and glanced up at her brother as he strode through the surf, unruffled by the strong waves that had knocked her over. Another round of warm salty water slid in around her, embracing her where she sat, and she almost settled back into it, as it felt so inviting.
Simon then stood over her, grinning, and extended a hand to her. She reached out and took it-
Her eyes opened. She emerged from the memory-dream, and was hurled out of her chair.
Klaxons suddenly sounded, the console beeping and screaming in her ears, a torrent of noise and shuddering sensations that sent adrenaline pouring into her body and triggered the programming's cold, metallicinstructions.
River Tam jolted up and into the chair, hands flying over the courier vessel's controls. She brought up the sensors, checked the feeds, and assessed damage control. It was a familiar sensation, and bits of thought and memory from Wash ran up and down her arms as she clacked away at the keyboard.
Minor hull breach on the aft quarter, consistent with mass accelerator weaponry. Engines at twenty-three percent power. Seventeen thousand kilometers to her rear, a modified freighter with a couple of protruding cannons closing in at a very swift speed.
It had been stupid of her to sleep while traveling, but the proximity detectors had been armed. They hadn't warned her because the threat was outside her sensors' warning range, and was too small for the settings she'd put in. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Options scrolled through her mind.
Distress call. No good. System militia or Alliance patrols would take too long, and the latter would be worse than pirates. Death was preferable to the Academy, dammit.
Outrun them. The courier was faster than their ship (Kowloon-class light freighter, model DX-TPF0112 based on thermal wake). Not possible. First shot had taken out her engines. She couldn't match their acceleration.
Fight. Poor odds. Her ship was unarmed, they'd hack into her systems in seconds once they grabbed her, and gas her or pull her oxygen or board and overwhelm her with sheer firepower. She was good but not that good.
Hide. She was within twelve minutes' burn time with her engine damaged as it was to reach the planet Oberon. She could hit the atmosphere and hide on the surface. Odds of success were meager, but superior to the chances of the other plans.
River poured everything she had into the wounded engines and gunned it for the dusty brown sphere of Oberon, looming tantalizingly close. She tightened her sensors to lock on the pirate freighter.
The pirates continued to close, and their mass accelerator fired again. She spotted it this time, a heartbeat before it would hit her, and fired her maneuvering thrusters. The ship skittered sideways, and the courier shuddered as the round sliced along her hull but did not penetrate. She altered her course, swinging her ship around so that she was between the planet and the pirates.
They began to dodge around, trying to get an angle on her ship that didn't have the planet backstopping their shots. Planetary authorities got tetchy when pirates sent ship-grade weapons into their atmosphere, no matter where the shots hit, and did silly things like send interceptors and gunships in response. It was a trick Wash had taught her.
Pain ran up through her, and she shook her head, trying to focus instead of thinking on her betrayal. She couldn't survive this if she was stuck on her own self-recriminations.
River kept the courier twisting and dodging, keeping herself between the planet and the pirates while struggling to keep the engine from dying on her. The focus on those tasks let her stay lucid and clear. Minutes of weaving and dodging ticked past, the pirates still closing but unwilling to fire lest they find angry interceptors boiling out of the atmosphere like laser-y wasps.
Atmosphere tugged on her ship, sending up sparks and heat along the hull, and whispers of elation danced around her. Echoing pangs of frustration pinged off the courier's hull as the pirates continued to close.
The sensors squawked, and the courier jolted.
Iron materialized in her stomach, making companions and having tea with leaden dread.
The grappling claw the pirates had fired tightened and went taut, and cheers of victory, sick noises that made her stomach grumble, pinged off the hull.
A story Wash had told her sprung to mind.
Her fingers danced across the console, ideas weaving through her brain like meteor showers and ballet dancers. The courier's engines suddenly reversed, and she shot back toward the pirates. The grappling cable slackened, the operators caught off-guard by the sudden change.
Delicious confusion did a little jig along the hull.
She flipped and twisted the courier, angling the engine toward one of the side-mounted thrusters on the pirate ship, while switching the engine to interplanetary burn-mode. The engine spun up, plasma starting to gleam inside of it. She leveled out then, lining up her engine with the side thruster on the pirate vessel.
Comprehension sprang up like weeds, followed by yellow fear-mites, skittering along the metal.
River triggered the engine, and it fired off, loosing a ribbon of tight plasma. The courier jolted forward; even on weakened engines like hers, interplanetary burn had an immense amount of force, and the plasma was hot enough to melt non-warship-grade hull plating. Even so, it wouldn't be enough to do more than briefly blind her opponents.
Except the plasma ribbon flowed right into the pirate ship's starboard thruster.
The freighter's engine overheated almost instantly, and automated emergency failsafes (standard across all Kowloon-class freighters, as Wash had told her) kicked in, shutting the engine down. The pirate vessel started spinning sideways, and then the grappling cable ran out, dragged to its length by the rocketing courier shooting down toward the planet.
The claw was weaker than the cable's housing, and snapped clean off.
She was free. River began to level out and search across the planet's surface for a hiding spot. Rocky, desert-brown hills and ridges rose up on the surface below her, covered with low brown-green scrub and some occasional trees, and she hunted through them for a suitable spot.
Behind her, the pirates cut their second engine and fired their maneuvering thrusters, straightening out. They spun around, facing her ship only a few dozen kilometers away as she rocketed across the landscape.
Anger rumbled against the metal of her ship and sank into her bones.
The mass accelerator fired again, and its aim was true.
River pitched forward out of her chair, slamming into the console -
should have put on safety restraints
- and fell to the deck as he ship began spinning wildly, alarms screaming at her. She fought her way up to her seat, hearing the screaming in her ear, and some distant part of her realized it was also coming from her as she grappled with the controls.
The desert of Oberon was rising up in her cockpit, a spiraling mish-mash of brown, and then a fist the size of the universe slugged River across her whole body-
Her eyes opened, and pain was a defining aspect of her new reality. Pain, and the copper of blood in her mouth.
The programming told her to sit up, and she did, ignoring the swimming and swirling and agony rolling over her.
Mental checklist. Large amount of bruising across whole body. Possible concussion. Bleeding from two lacerations in mouth due to self-inflicted dental wounds. Possible cracks in ribcage due to repeatedly slamming into console. She checked with her fingers.
White. Very, very white.
Revision: ribs definitely cracked.
The pain faded, and she managed to stand, pushing the agony back. She found excellent motivation to do so: laboring engines outside.
Her pistol was close. Fingers wrapped around familiar, deadly metal.
Outside, an exit ramp hit the sand.
She limped to the hatch, picking out boots and books and tying books to boots. Four men, metal in hand. Shotguns, one submachinegun, grenades. Eager inks mixed with anger and greed scribbled violently across their pages as they loped across the sand.
She reached the hatch and closed her eyes. Her lips moved of their own accord, rebelling against the stillness of the rest of her body.
Estimated distance: Fourteen meters. Targets have two meter spread on average between them. No need to correct for wind, Coriolis Effect. One, two, three, four.
She opened the hatch and spun out, weapon rising.
The pistol barked once -
direct hit to heart, penetrating ventricle, causing massive hydrostatic shock, complete heart failure, death inside of one minute
- twice -
hit to throat, penetrating major artery, massive blood loss, unconsciousness within thirty seconds, death within one minute
- thrice -
impact center of head, just above upper lip, penetration, bone fragmentation, bullet slicing through brain stem, death instantaneous
-and four times.
direct hit to nose, penetrating cartilage with minimal loss in velocity, passing through upper portions of brain stem, inflicting heavy cranial trauma, death within one minute
She opened her eyes. Four men lay dead or dying not ten meters away.
The ship hovered there for a few moments, and then the thrusters erupted. She ducked back into the hatch as the dust clouds rose up, and ship spun around and shot into the sky as fast as it could go.
Wisdom was scarce among pirates. The survivors had hoarded theirs, clearly.
River turned back, closed the hatch, and took a few steps toward her bunk and the medical kit inside before the floor rose up and gave her a hard, heavy, painful metal hug.
River's eyes opened, and the pain was once more gratuitous.
She pushed herself up, hissing at the agony in her ribs, and checked the clock. An hour and seven minutes had passed.
Alive and still inside the battered, crashed old courier. Good enough. She shambled up to her feet, head swimming, and stumbled into the bunk. The medikit slid out of its drawer and clattered from weak fingers to the deck. Muttering curses under her breath, River hefted it up, opened it, and started patching up her wounds and taping her ribs. There were painkillers inside, and she swallowed two of them.
Her head fell back onto the bunk's lumpy, uncomfortable pillow, which smelled of someone else who had owned this ship before she'd stolen it, and darkness claimed her again.
White light stabbed into her eyes. She recoiled from the harsh glare, closing her eyes from the painful, lancing lamp.
Hard fingers grabbed her hair, yanking her head around. Pain erupted along her scalp as her head was wrenched back toward the light, and she gasped. She tried to push away or raise her hands or kick or struggle, but hard leather straps held her down to the cold metal chair, wrapping around her legs and arms and neck. The air was frigid, goosebumps rising off her skin.
"Open your eyes!" a man snarled at her, his voice harsh but familiar. "Look at me!"
Her head snapped back, blood splattering across her cheek. Pain rolled across her face.
"Look! At! ME!"
"No!" River screamed back.
He hit her again, across her left eye. Then again, in the mouth. She though she felt a tooth give way.
"We can keep this up all day," the man muttered, and then his fist came down, lower, hitting her in the stomach. She jolted backward in the chair, the air blasted out of her lungs.
The voice. It was familiar. So gorram familiar.
She raised her head, and opened her right eye.
"Good," the man said. "Cooperative."
"I know you," River breathed, blood dribbling out of her mouth. The light blazing into her eyes tilted a little, and she stared up at the man's face. Dark skin, wide nose, solid features that were used to smiling. Except his skin was smooth of wrinkles, and his hair was dark.
And her blood was on his knuckles.
" . . . Book?" she whispered, horror rolling up through her.
His response was a blow to her jaw, knocking her head back.
"Surprised?" he asked. "Not so innocent now, are you? Not so worthy of forgiveness?"
He grabbed her hair again, pulling her head around to face him anew, and the light glared down into her eyes.
"I don't give a damn if you're innocent or not!" he snarled into her face, spittle striking her cheek.
She stared at the man's eyes, cruel and vicious and lacking in anything familiar.
"Where does that put you?" he whispered, and a smile empty of mirth spread across his features.
His fist rose and slugged her again.
She jolted awake, gasping and choking back a scream. River twisted, eyes skittering across the interior of the bunk. Pain moaned over her body, particularly her stomach, hardening into clumps of snarling grumbles where the bruises and lacerations were worst. The bunk itself was still and quiet.
Her breathing was bucking and out of control, and she couldn't separate phantom dream-pain from real pain without some effort.
Her fingers scrabbled for the medikit, and it eluded her for a moment, metal refusing to be scooped up by her fingertips for the first couple of tries. She finally got it to agree with her and pulled it up, opening the box and digging for more painkillers.
"Run away and die tired."
She jerked and cried out in shock, the medikit leaping out of her hands and spilling supplies all over the bed and floor. Her head snapped up, locking onto the entrance to the bunk, a shadow falling over her.
Someone, huge and familiar and sending spikes of agony-terror jabbing into her skull and chest, loomed over her, a sneer on his lips.
"Point of pride," the voice said, deep and heavy. "I always catch my target. You think killing me is going to stop that?"
She sat up, ramrod straight. She knew that voice.
"Dead," she breathed, and the man looming over her laughed.
"Like I said, that ain't gonna stop me," the dark-skinned figure murmured, clad in a carmine jumpsuit of armor, and he reached down for her. She backed away, her shoulders hitting the wall, and her fingers skittered and searched. One hand closed around Laertes, sheathed beside her, while the other found her pistol. She snapped them up before her, screaming and eyes closing in near-panic.
The pistol barked, impossibly loud in the tiny space. The round ricocheted once off the wall and buried in the deck plating.
Silence, save for her labored breathing.
River's eyes forced themselves open, her muscles trembling and body heaving with terrified gasps.
Nothing. No one was there. The ship was empty. Her awareness reached out and confirmed that she was alone.
"Hallucination," River breathed, shaking her head. She felt heat form behind her eyes as she realized the specter of Jubal Early had been only that.
Tears escaped her eyes, and she didn't fight back the sobs. It was starting up again. Without the medicine, without Simon, without her family, the madness was creeping in.
After a few minutes of crying, an errant thought started up in her brain, rebellious and angry. Her fingers tightened around the grip of the pistol and the sheath of Laertes as that bit of Mal she'd picked up stomped its way into the front of her mind. That flicker of his writing on her mind joined the strength of the others that made up her family, and she pushed the tears and self-pity and frustration back.
If the madness returned, she would deal with it. That was the whole reason she had chosen to journey alone.
Repair the ship. She stepped back into the engine room glanced at the gaping holes in the engine core from where they'd hit her vessel, and scratched that. This ship would never fly again.
Wait for rescue. The ship's chronometer told her that she'd been out for two hours. Three hours since crashdown. If planetary rescue authorities were coming, they would have arrived already. Maybe local citizens would come, but she couldn't count on speed or goodwill. Estimates were that it was just as likely she would encounter scavengers that wanted to strip the ship for parts and kill or do other unsavory things with her instead of providing medical attention. In addition, the pirates might get their courage back and return with more men.
Call for help. A glance at the ship's transmitter told her it was mangled beyond repair.
Find help. Possible. She limped to the ship's console in the cockpit and pulled up the computer's atlas and almanac data on Oberon. She quickly found her position on the planet and did geographic checks for available shelter.
There was a habitation of maybe fifty-seven kilometers to her east. It was marked as possessing a local marshal, and the almanac had been updated three weeks ago. Reasonably safe. She bit her lip, considering the difficulty of the journey in her injured state. Provisions on the ship were sufficient for up to a week's time. She could make it, provided she didn't collapse from her injuries.
Better than waiting for the pirates or scavengers to come.
She collected the ship's food supply and water, gathering it into a bag and a series of bottles. The medikit went with it. She downloaded the local maps and planetary data into a data needle and put it into a data pad. She stepped outside, to find the warm early-morning desert had been replaced by hot and harsh afternoon desert. She pushed through the sweat and dust and heat, finding the corpses of the men she'd killed. She took one of their shotguns, ammunition, a holster, and all the money they had left. They had grenades too, incendiaries with push-pin functions that acted like dead man's switches. She appropriated those too, putting two onto a pouch slung across her chest. Most of the rest went in the bag, but she holstered her pistol on her side, the weight comfortable, and managed to fashion an over-the-shoulder rig for the shotgun. Finally, Laertes went on her waist.
Focusing on the tasks let River stay lucid. If she lost herself while trying to work, she suspected she wouldn't recover.
She hefted the entire ensemble onto her shoulders and started across the hot, empty desert to the east.
She'd heard the desert sun described as a "beating" force, but in her experience it was more of a constant, heavy pressure on her, forcing her to struggle simply to keep moving. Not an hour after departing from the crash site, River felt exhaustion creeping around her, a wearying serpent. Between the heat, her injuries, and the gear she was carrying, it was all starting to take its toll.
Prudence told her it was a bad idea to bring so much with her. The shotgun in particular was questionable in its utility. She pushed on, though, sipping carefully from one of the bottles of water. Sweat ran down her face, and she finally paused, settling down into the dust and pulling out her pack. She fashioned a small strap using a knife and a tatter from her dust-covered clothes, and pulled her hair back. It hated being constrained, but she understood that letting it hang around her face would just make things more uncomfortable.
Once she was finished, River's body protested in angry chorus as she pushed herself up to her feet and hefted her pack onto her shoulders anew. Her feet began shuffling forward, and the rest of her reluctantly followed.
An hour passed, pooling together into a dull blur of heat and aches and plodding feet pushing over dirt. She kept moving eastward, using the data pad's built-in compass to guide her. The glare and the dust made her constantly squint as she worked her way over the rolling hills.
She slowed as the next hour passed. A ridge rose up ahead of her, and she had to navigate around it. That took another hour, the star overhead gradually shifting into Oberon's "west" as she plodded along. The pain in her back and chest blurred into a low, but bearable ache in the background, and River found herself focusing on the movements of her legs, keeping herself headed forward and around the inconvenient geography.
Oberon, like its literary namesake, was being inconsiderate. Of course, it was irrational to consider billions of years of geological transformation to be part of a deliberate campaign to inconvenience a single crazy girl as she plodded across a rocky desert, but it made her feel better to have someone to blame for it all.
She found a gap in the stone along the ridgeline, and worked her way through it, clambering over rocks and boulders wedged in the opening. A half-hour of scrambling and clambering later, her fingers were protesting and her knees were scabbed, but she was through.
The other side of the ridge was shaded from the descending sun, and half a kilometer away she saw a few trees, low and weary things with bits of green stubbornly clinging to their branches. She worked her way toward the shade and shelter they offered, and wearily dropped into the dust beneath them. Then, another sip from the water bottle and a battle against the urge to guzzle.
For a few moments she contemplated preparing a fire, but her body vetoed her brain and instead pressed for sleep. Treacherous body.
Her head sank back against the hard, knotted tree trunk, and darkness folded around her.
She could hear water drumming on corrugated metal seventy-three meters and twelve centimeters overhead, along one of the ventilation shafts. That was a familiar place, a free place with air from outside brushing down into the facility. She knew about it - they all knew about it, and it hung there like a taunt, a way out that let freedom drift past them but was guarded and warded so tightly they would never see it.
She hated it, but every night she went up there before she fell asleep. As long as it was there, the concept of hope never faded.
Or at least, that was how it had been for a long while, but now . . . .
She lay on her bed. There were no sheets or covers; they didn't trust her with them after she began tearing them apart, worried she was going to start making garrotes out of them. The rest of the room was bare save for a desk, a plastic chair, and a small toilet. They were too smart to leave things she could break into sharp edges or twist into picks. The walls were blank, and light only filtered in from the tiny window on the door that opened into the hallway beyond. This was her home for the last two years.
It was October 9, two years into her imprisonment. She remembered it clearly. It was a special day. Because
In the dream, River blinked. Yes, this was a special day. She remembered it very clearly.
She lay on the bed, but stood in the corner watching herself lay there. In the dream, River was thin, pale, her hair loose and stringy and unkempt, curled around into a tight ball. The dream-River looked on memory-River, and saw memory-River sobbing and shaking.
October 9 was a very special day, she remembered. It was the day she had realized-
" . . .not . . . not . . . never not ever never . . . ." memory-River whispered, hugging her knees to her chest.
Dream-River watched herself with detached curiosity as the sobs intensified, and she started to sit up. She shook her head, sniffling a few times, and then climbed up off the bed.
Dream-River and memory-River both knew what was happening. From her perspective, dream-River watched her younger self as she rose, wiped her nose, turned to face the wall, and then reared back before slamming her forehead into the blank plaster-concrete.
It was a dull, vicious impact, and memory-River toppled backward to the floor, blood dribbling down her forehead. She rose shakily to her feet a few moments later, wobbling and shivering, tears still running down her face. She let out an anguished shriek as she rose and charged the wall, slamming into it again.
October 9 was the day she had finally accepted that Simon was never going to come for her.
Memory-her flopped on the floor, lying still for several moments before trying to rise again, intent on killing herself in the only way they offered. Repeated, self-inflicted blunt trauma to the head could cause death or long-term brain damage if she did it enough, and either way would end the purgatory she'd spent the last couple of years in.
She got to her hands and knees before the door burst open.
Memory-River shrieked again and tried to resist as the orderlies and guards poured into the room. She managed to pop one knee with a lashing foot, and blacken an eye, before they wrestled her to the ground and shoved tranquilizers into her veins. She kept struggling, fighting, and screaming until they took effect, and finally went limp.
She stood in her lucid dream, watching herself, and saw the pitiful, despairing child they'd built her into. A cavalcade of emotions rode into her as dream-River looked upon memory-River: bubbling hatred for the people that did this to her, intermixed with flares of sharp, needle-like grief for the time she'd lost, intermixed in a whirlwind of different sorts of emotional pain.
October 9 was a special day. It the first day she'd wanted to die. But the next days would be worse, she knew.
On October 14, the day after they released her from the medical bay with no long-term injuries (praise be to modern medicine), she would meet John.
River opened her eyes, goosebumps emerging from her skin to complain in conjunction with the shivers. A chilly night galloped around her, brushing her with a low-temperature embrace that reminded River she'd chosen to take a nap on a desert planet.
The shivers kept intensifying as she sat there, pushing away the metal cobwebs of her dreams. Her arms and legs moved of their own accord, taking another dose of painkillers, then unfolding around her like a wakening spider, and her mind sat back and watched with disinterest as she gathered kindling from the trees around her. A fire started soon afterward, borne of mechanical motions and stolen knowledge.
She sat for a while, the feeble tickling of the heat from the little campfire suppressing the goosebumps.
A while became a long while, the fire dying down as the sun started to rise. A weary not-sleep fugue settled over her as she watched the sun come up, and some part of her realized it had nothing to do with physical exhaustion.
She didn't want to get up, but an insistent, contrary voice sounded in her ears, pushing her to stand. Its words were unclear, but the emotion in it, the stubborn refusal to surrender and lay down, echoed in his gibberish-words.
He wasn't really there. River knew where Mal was: lying still between life and death back on Serenity. But that didn't change the fact that she could hear him, yelling words of encouragement and defiance to her, his voice sending electrical jolts through her body and pushing River to her feet.
Had to keep moving. Had to get to safety. Had to survive.
River gathered her gear and stepped out into the heavy sunlight, and resumed her march.
The day wore on. Distances calculated themselves in her head, and she estimated she was halfway to the village she'd seen overhead. Tomorrow she should be able to reach the village.
Progress was unsuitable, as the planet turned and the star passed overhead. Heat pulsed through her, forcing sweat down her brow and over the rest of her body, dragging out the discomfort. Throat was parched and burning and gummy with surprising celerity.
The urge to empty her canteen was growing exponentially with each hour, but she kept it under control by computing random mathematical problems in her head as she trudged across the sand and dust. Simple geometric problems were first, but she found the abstract nature of the problems boring without concrete applications. She focused on economic trends, figuring up trade interactions between individual moons orbiting a single planet and extrapolating from there. It was an engaging mental exercise that occupied her mind over the next few kilometers, and it kept her mind sharp and focused (minimal blurs and bolds) and her perceptions off the pain in her ribs.
Additionally, it kept her mind off the voices she was certain she wasn't actually hearing, and the occasional crunch of sand beneath boots that weren't hers.
She stopped to rest wherever shade offered itself – beneath overhangs and ridges left from when the planet was dust and wind without life. She took a fresh round of painkillers, then ate, steadily, like a machine, and when she'd judged enough rest had been had, she arose and advanced into the sun, like
-Serenity Valley, leaning into a charge against a machinegun emplacement, head low, rifle barking, ducking from boulder to sandbag to rise to trench, wondering when a dark-armored form would get lucky and whether it would be felt before she died-
She pushed on.
The sun edged to the western end of the horizon. A small dust storm picked up, forcing her to wrap her head up in cloth and squint her eyes, hunting for a rock or tree or anything to take cover behind. The wind intensified as the minutes passed, sand pouring into her clothes, scratching and biting and grating down her skin. Her legs wobbled.
fingers at her back – his back to hers, hand holding her arm and helping her stand
She set her feet, phantom sensation along her body, as if someone was holding her up. She closed her eyes, shaking, mostly certain that she was simply confusing memory for reality.
The "mostly" troubled her.
Sensory perceptions extended outwards, her mind not affected by mindless wind, and reflected off objects. It glided over sand, through shifting dust, and careened off trees and rocks. She triangulated her position (Jayne's tracking skills murmured into her ears) and pushed forward, through the dust storm.
Shelter was a small cavern set into another ridge, maybe three or four meters deep. She pushed into the mercifully dark safety within, and dropped to the dirt. Panting escaped her lips, surprising her.
not conditioned for long-term overland movement
Once again, River was confronted with how stupid it was for her to have come out here on her own. How arrogant and thoughtless (selfish!) to think she could do this by herself.
Those black thoughts dripped down the walls around her as she waited out the dust storm. She was under no illusions as to what would have happened if it had been worse, and that understanding reinforced the ugly, pungent notionsthat were seeping around her.
A mutter of memory, and a sunny smile cut into those thoughts, and River closed her eyes. A cheerful voice curled around her, speaking words as indistinct as Mal's had been that morning, and it kept the darkness at bay. River clenched her fingers, touching Kaylee's bubbling optimism. Heavy words followed them, reciting a mantra that was cyan with understanding and forgiveness – words that were more distinct, if in meaning if not in actual content.
Yes, this had been a mistake, his voice advised her. But understanding that mistake and moving beyond those failings was equally important. Was that not why she had come out here, to face herself on her own?
River shook her head. She didn't know.
The storm didn't dissipate anytime soon, but the cavern was safe. She made another fire, ate, and settled her head against the wall, Kaylee and Book hovering close in her mind to keep the black thoughts at bay.
The room was lit with the same institutionally-cold illumination as the rest of the facility – white light with chilly metal and concrete walls and floors. A circular table of plastic, bolted to the floor and with rounded edges, sat in the middle of the room. A few plastic chairs sat in the room, all lightweight and made of flexible material. There were no jutting sconces for the lights, no large vents to crawl through, no readily-accessible screws, writing implements, or anything in the little room that could conceivably be used as a weapon.
She sat in the chair opposite the door, absently rubbing her wrists. This was the first time she'd gone without restraints in days, after the suicide attempt. It was tied in with her lucidity; a fresh round of injections had chased the most chaotic parts of her mind down, suppressing them and allowing her to talk, think, and act like a rational person. It was a fleeting moment of clarity that she hated, because she knew there would be more cutting and experimentation later, which would ruin all of it.
The door opened, and River looked up. Her eyes locked on the metal door as it swung outward, and a dozen possibilities for escape swam up, took shape, and were hammered into being. But just as quickly, she tossed them aside, mathematics proving that no matter how fast she got up and bolted across the room, she couldn't get out before someone responded and issued an alarm.
Instead, she watched and waited, tense and upright, as a man entered the room. He was about her age, maybe a couple of years older than her sixteen, a little on the short side, with a slender, athletic build, handsome features (barely remembered what "handsome" meant, surrounded by ugly fat doctors and technicians) and short, pale blond hair. He wore a black uniform that matched those of the guards, and she recognized his features as being one of the security guards she'd seen in the hallways and labs.
There was nothing there, from him. No words, no written or empty pages, no colors or tastes or scents drifting from him. There was an emptiness within and around him. He was Blank.
And then he did something she never expected.
"Hello, River," he said, and smiled. He set a folder down on the table, and the door closed quietly behind him.
Everyone who spoke to her referred to her as "One-Three-Seven" or "River Tam" or simply "Tam." No one had spoken her first name except the last counselor she'd had – and murdered.
"My name is Johnathan," he said, sitting down opposite her. She watched his movements, noting the precise poise of his body language – similar to a predator eyeing another that he wasn't sure would attack him. There was respect there, and caution, but not fear. "Johnathan Garis."
She didn't respond. River scanned his features, locked into a patient and understanding smile, and wondered what they were trying to accomplish.
Silence passed in the room for several moments, and she didn't speak, and he finally settled back a bit. He turned his head.
"Cut them off," he called. A tingle of confusion filtered through the walls.
"Excuse me?" replied a voice over the intercom.
"I said cut them off," John snapped. "All the recording devices."
"She won't say anything while you're listening in," he said, patiently, and glanced to her. He gave her a short, quick grin. "You won't get anything useful anyway. You know she knows about you. Give the damn girl some privacy."
Anger passed over her, and she fought back the urge to smile at the consternation he was causing.
"Protocol-" the voice began.
"The hell with protocol," John said. "Cut them off."
A few seconds later, the anger grew, and the distant single of electronic surveillance vanished. In its stead, she caught a new timbre of frustration.
"Better," John said, visibly relaxing. River felt her own muscles loosening, just a little bit. Every minute of the last two years had been spent under surveillance, and to be left alone like this all of a sudden was mostly confusing.
The first word she'd spoken made John frown, and he sat back, thinking for a few seconds. It was a harrowing few, as she couldn't tell what was going through his mind as he did so.
"You tried to take your own life," he said, his voice quiet. "That has . . . some people disturbed."
She stared at him, the loosening muscles in her back starting to tighten again. Another counselor.
The obstinance she was feeling at that must have registered on her face, because John's eyes widened a hair, and he sat up.
"I'm not a counselor," he said. "I'm not here to poke and prod so we can find out how the treatments have been affecting your mind."
She didn't respond, instead keeping her eyes locked on his. He opened his mouth to continue, but then John paused, and pressed his lips together. Uncertainty crossed his features, and he finally let out a quick and quiet breath.
"They wanted me to poke you," he said, shaking his head. "To play counselor and talk you out of trying suicide again. But . . . why?"
"Why what?" she asked after a heartbeat.
"Why now?" he asked her. "Two years. W- You have been locked up here for so long, and they've lost so many others due to suicide, but you didn't break, until a few nights ago. I don't understand why."
She didn't reply immediately. Part of her mind was processing the answer to his question, while another part of her tried to figure out what his real angle was. And a not insignificant part of her marked the near slip of his tongue and tried to figure out what he meant by it.
But the majority of her was simply locked on damage control, and his words had just stabbed into a still-fresh and gaping emotional wound, the result of that ugly, hope-crushing realization that she was alone.
It took her a while. Three abortive attempts to speak, to which he waited and watched with patience and interest. An analytical section of her warned River that he may just be asking her questions to gauge her responses, but talking to someone whose intentions didn't flash in front of her in giant bold letters was a novel experience after two years of seeing and feeling the scientists' intentions slithering through her skin.
"I am alone," she finally admitted, staring down at the table. "Deep down, beneath he ground, where I will never make a sound."
The pain from that realization began to rise up again, but his next words cut through it before it started.
"No," John whispered, and she looked up at him. He leaned forward, over the table, and earnest concern scrawled itself over his thin features. "No, River. You aren't."
His fingers clenched tightly, and she saw pain in his eyes. No enhanced senses or memetic emotional-detection training was required to see it.
"You're not alone," he said in the silence that followed.
River kicked and clawed her way back to reality, and found herself hissing and cursing and pushing away that memory-dream as hard as she could. There was a flash of pain as she poked her ribs by accident, and that woke her up quite efficiently.
After downing more painkillers, she hauled herself back into reality to find it was still dark. The sandstorm had ended, and the whole camp was coated in a light layer of dust. The cloth she'd pulled over her face had shielded her from the worst of it, but itchy was crawling over her skin.
She pulled herself into a sitting position, and tried to figure out what parts of that dream had been truth and what was simply truth-like. It was hard to tell what parts were memory and what parts were real. The bit of Book that she had seen was not her memory, but that didn't mean it wasn't a memory. So much of who and what she had been blurred together into a vaguely familiar mass of thought and concept and sensation.
Solutions did not become apparent, and she finally settled back into a light doze that lasted for a few hours. It was uncomfortable, due to the sand and dust and heat and the mounting sunburns, but she managed.
A noise drew her out of the doze, just before dawn: rumbling engines, far above her shelter. She cocked an ear, as the entirely biologically impossible saying went, and listened to the ship. She put it as a Kowloon, the same model that had belonged to the pirates that had shot her down, though that didn't mean it was their ship. Distance was about five hundred meters overhead, and direction put it as traveling away - thanks to the Doppler effect.
It kept going, and didn't return. After listening for another half hour, weariness came back and sternly reminded her that rest was needed. Dozing resumed, with notable begrudging and brushing of itchy hindquarters.
The next day was clear and cooler, and thus more optimistic. That worried her; statistically, optimistic beginnings led to ugly endings.
Or maybe that was Mal or Jayne's unending cynicism nesting in her.
She made good time that day, pushing over the ridge and in the direction of the town. Estimates on timeframe said she would be there one hour before solar apex, generously applying time needed to rest. The subsequent trudge through the sands proved the estimate to be good; though unpleasant as before, she was getting accustomed to it.
Best of all, no hallucinations this time. Focusing on the task kept herself from imagining footsteps following her, or familiar voices urging her onwards through the harsh desert sun.
Two hours before the local star took its throne high in the sky, she mounted the top of a rocky hill and looked upon the town. It was maybe a kilometer and a half away, down a gentle slope that was strewn with boulders and a few scraggly trees. The houses were the standard eclectic mixture of wooden buildings coupled with a few plastic-and-metal prefabricated structures. A slender rivers weaved through the middle of the town, and misplaced greenery hugged its banks. She saw a few tilled fields, irrigation channels, and a fenced area for livestock. Cattle and a few horses roamed the kilometers-wide pasture. There were a few hundred people according to the local guide, and the numbers present matched the estimate.
Good. River started down the slope, and found a spring in her step that must have been misplaced. It would have to be returned, as she shouldn't have springs in her movements. Too much optimism.
Even at this distance, she tasted the awareness that edged over the town as she walked down the slope. Someone probably had spotted her, but instead of suspicion or alarm there were only a few sprouts of curiosity, orange-yellow in its interest.
Then a yellow-red burst of realization pulsed across the landscape, washing over her, followed by a thin, vicious echo of spiky hatred. She paused, blinking, not sure where that came from, and then distantly heard something else.
Engines. Familiar engines.
Placement took only a few seconds, and she spun, turning her head while her fingers found sun-warmed metal, the steel rasping against her holster as she drew the pistol. Her eyes flicked up into the blue sky, zeroing in on the spiky hate that kept poking at her.
The pirate ship that she'd dodged two nights ago was a speck of darkness in the azure ceiling overhead. It was far away, seeming to be almost irrelevant.
It wasn't. That distance was trivial to a ship that made interplanetary voyages standard, and worse still, it was aware.
That barbed hate was directed at River, specifically, and it was en route to where she stood. They knew where she was, and the survivors were coming back for revenge.
She spun around and bolted. The town was only a kilometer away now, and it had a marshal and probably a local militia. At the very least, it had walls that she could hide behind.
A flicker of fear ran through her as he legs pumped, launching her over and around rocks and brush and trees, little branches slapping at her as she passed. Would the pirates simply shoot up the town to reach her? Was she placing innocents at risk just to save herself?
That almost caused her to stop, but she kept processing the situation.
The hate she felt was vicious and personal, but singular. She could only catch a little bit of the sound and scents and tastes from the oncoming ship, enough for maybe three or four people at the best, and only one of them was possessed of the distinct timbre of personal hatred for her. That likely meant that pirates' captain.
She frowned in annoyance. Said captain was a coward, apparently, if he had not been out with his men when she'd killed him. The hatred was entirely irrational for a man who had sent underlings to die in his stead, but then again, rational hate was a rare gem for any mind's caves to harbor.
dammit, getting metaphorical again, bad sign
Evidence: cowardly pirate captain. Likely low on manpower. Heavily armed vessel, personal vendetta. Also, amorality and irrationality. Conclusion: They wouldn't hesitate to shoot up the town to find her.
Recommended course of action: minimize innocent casualties. If she entered the town, and someone died for that, it would partially be her fault. Therefore, unacceptable.
Pangs of alarm were running through the town as people saw the incoming ship and the girl fleeing from it. Golden bursts of combative defiance rang out here and there as men and women ran for weapons. They'd fight the pirates, if it came to it, and that fact stabbed a hook blade into her gut. People would die if she ran into the town, almost certainly.
River came to a halt. The ship was closing in, estimated distance putting it within striking range in the next couple of minutes.
The hatred was becoming more pronounced, more definable, and with it she saw intentions. The pirate captain wanted personal revenge (blurred at the edges by alcohol - the irrationality became clearer) which meant face-to-face. He wasn't going to blast her from the sky when he could put a bullet in her stomach and watch her bleed out.
River turned, searching for defensible ground. If she stayed in the open, he would come out to meet her. He might bombard the area around her to knock her flat, but he would come out to meet her afterwards. That was her chance to end this without hurting anyone else.
One hundred and seventy-three meters to the east, there was a tumble of boulders that formed a vaguely crescent shape. It would form a fine defense against small-caliber weapons and maybe heavier firepower. At the least, it would shelter her from shrapnel.
Just had to get there.
River took off, her legs launching her across the rocky slope and toward the tumble of boulders. Her mind ran calculations of distance, velocity, weapons range, and fuel economy while her legs and torso and arms pushed her and kept her weaving among the stones and dust. Her awareness tied in with her body's movements to form an impromptu coalition government existing for the sole purpose of getting her to safety without smashing her face on a rock. Another part of her took a brief inventory of her available weapons and gear, cataloging the grenade, guns, and blades she carried. Still another sector of her brain was cataloguing her injuries and how they would influence her defense. Those cracked ribs were slowing her movements down quite a bit, even if she was doing a smashing job of ignoring the pain in favor of petty things like survival.
And finally, one tiny voice at the very tail end of all of the previous processes was screaming a number of horrified obscenities and telling her to never trust to optimistic beginnings again.
Three cheers for mental multitasking.
Working together, her brain and body and enhanced senses were able to work out a reasonable defensive plan once she arrived at the tumble of sheltering boulders, now about fifty meters away, and River plotted out a route that would take her there with minimal risk of unexpected, granite-induced unconsciousness. It looked like it would work.
Then, to paraphrase Jayne at his most eloquent, reality took a sizable, pungent defecation all over that plan.
The pirate ship was fast. Too fast, at least for her. River made it close to forty meters to the shelter of the rock tumble, leaping over a boulder, when the modified freighter ripped overhead, swooping over her, rotating its maneuvering thrusters down toward the ground. It slid sideways and swept in front of her, maybe thirty meters away and fifteen high, kicking up a storm of sand and dust that forced her to come to a halt, covering her mouth and squinting her eyes.
Then, the thrusters fired.
From that distance, she could feel the heat, but it wasn't anything more than an uncomfortable baking sensation, like being too close to a toaster oven. More difficult to resist, however, was the sledgehammer of pure force that slammed down into the dirt and then swept outward. It smacked into River like a pillow of suitably epic proportions, lifting her up and launching her backward.
She realized where she was headed maybe half an instant before the boulder she'd just cleared intercepted her, and a flash of white lanced through her whole body, chased immediately by darkness.
It lasted only a few seconds, and adrenaline sent her thrashing back up into the real world, where pain was waiting to greet her. It pulled her into a bear hug, focusing on her back, and when she inhaled, the agony was tangible in her chest and backbones. Another embracing grasp of pain coiled about her leg, like a very friendly snake that was hugging her as tight as it could. It was in her lower left leg.
She couldn't begin to catalogue where she was hurt and how serious it was. Only the most clear injuries were obvious: battered back (not broken but hurt nonetheless) and a broken left leg, lower shin.
She lay there for a moment, gasping, the pain rolling up through her back scrambling any attempts she could make to try to stand. She gagged a bit on the blowing sand, but it was starting to settle down, and with it was the engine of the ship, its throat roar shifting back to an idle rumble. It had landed.
Then there were footsteps. They were inaudible over the din of the ship's engines but the vibrations running through the sand were clear enough to her.
Inventory. Laertes, melee weapon against guns, sheathed. Ineffective. Her pistol was in the dirt, one meter and seventeen centimeters away. Might as well be on another world. Shotgun, damaged in the engine blast, warped. Also, on her back. Couldn't grab and draw it without getting shot.
Another option presented itself.
The footsteps rumbled closer, preceded by high-pitched flickers of vengeance and hatred. That familiar, personal hatred. Kind of like Mal's.
" . . . but there's witnesses in that town over thataway!" someone was saying, protest altering the timbre of his voice.
"They can report us to the marshal all they want," snarled another voice, words echoing with hate. She recognized his mind as the one that wanted her dead. "She killed four of my crew. I'm getting' payback."
He was close. His intentions swirled around him like a . . . swirling . . . force.
bad idea to Wash now
River clenched her teeth, jaw aching, her legs tingling and vertebrae loosing a symphony of protest. But she stayed still, knowing that the pirate's leader - had to be the leader, she could hear the swishing of his captain-y coat as he stalked toward her - would get close.
His boot nudged her shoulder.
"Still alive," he snarled. "Good. I want you to see this, you little gorram bitch."
His boot hooked under her shoulder, and the pirate captain swung River over, flipping her onto her back.
She opened her eyes, locking them onto the man. He was heavyset, wearing a big gray overcoat, with a thick neck, thicker beard, and excessively thick features. (thick, thick, thick) He glared down at her, but that glare swiftly shifted to surprise and then fear.
After all, River had primed one of the grenades taken from his dead crew, and her finger was pointedly depressing the dead man's switch.
Tension flopped over them all like a misplaced whale.
It was a full five seconds before the pirate captain blinked, and the anxiety and fear cocooned and immobilized him.
"You are aware of this grenade's capabilities," River spoke into the heavy silence, which ignored the ship's laboring engines. (unnecessary anthropomorphization, why would the ship's engines be laboring-)
focus focus focus!
"If you shoot me , the grenade detonates," she continued.
The pirate took a long, slow breath, and she could see the pages in his mind-book, flipping and scribbling rapidly, in sharp, quick, rough script. He was factoring in how fast he could escape if he shot her, through the unexpected terror he was trying to control.
He had an advantage, considering River's own fear was an icy dagger stabbing her in the back over and over again. But at least it was a cold dagger, and she wasn't sweating or shivering.
"The device generates a lethal incendiary blast within a fifteen meter radius," she continued. She couldn't suppress the anxiety, so she worked around it. Memories of Simon and Zoe and Book welled up, and she injected their words and cold calmness into her voice. "The dead man's trigger is armed. You will have less than two seconds to get outside the blast radius."
She brought up a bit of Jayne and Mal, and use it smirk at him.
"How good is your hundred meter dash?" she added, ignoring the sharp, biting personal fear that the barrel of that weapon brought her.
The pirate considered his options, long and slow. She could see him debating, reason and anger in a forum with survival moderating the discussion, but the ultimate conclusion was inevitable. He was hateful and angry, but he didn't want to die.
Seconds later, the man leaned back, easing his weapon down.
"Let's not do anything stupid," he said, holding up his free hand in a placating gesture. His other slowly holstered his pistol.
"Back away," she said, and poured Zoe's coldest glacier-words-plus-thoughts-of-killing into her voice. "Get back on your ship. Leave. If I think you're going to try to kill me, I'll take you with me."
The pirate's face screwed up in anger and more hatred (vast quantities of that emotion were obvious, which ran through the pores of his skin and dripped around him to steam on the desert sand)
"Fine," he said, long and slow, and began to walk backwards, hands up to soothe her. His caution didn't extend to his eyes, and his next words were a snarl from the generic predatory animal nesting in his throat.
"But I ain't forgettin' this," he warned. "I'm gonna find you and kill you, mark my words."
River kept cold on her face, letting her annoyance at his hypocrisy (after all, his men had been coming to kill or do worse things to her) and her fingers remained steady on the grenade.
He was four meters away when an image leapt out of the pirate's mind then, clear as a hologram: the captain's boots on the ramp of his ship thirty meters away, his pistol in hand, several bullets lodged in River's chest, then fire as the grenade erupted.
The icy fear jabbing into her spine became red-hot panic as she understood the thought-image-painting. He was going to get out of range of the grenade and then kill her where she lay, or at least shoot her until she dropped the grenade, which would kill her anyway.
River couldn't keep the sudden panic that brought out of her features, but the pirate captain was already seven meters away and quickly backing up, so he didn't realize she had divined his intentions for a moment. He kept backing away, reaching ten meters before his textures changed, and she knew that he knew that she knew that he was planning on-
River twisted, looking up at the pistol that she'd dropped, lying a meter away, just out of reach. It was only a little past her fingertips' reach, but that was far enough.
The captain spun and started to dash toward his ship, and that made up her mind. River's arm pumped, and the grenade leapt from her fingers, the metal willing her flesh a forlorn goodbye as it sailed to its destiny to burn and-
She twisted around as the grenade flew, and lurched toward the pistol, kicking with her good leg while the broken one lay limp. She slid across the sand, fingers scrabbling for the pistol. Behind her, she could feel the grenade as it hit soil, landing between the pirate captain and his ship. The pilot, still standing on the ramp, spun and bolted inside, while the captain pulled himself up short and dove backwards to the edge of the grenade's burst radius.
Heat. Overpressure wave. Burnt sand hurtled through the air, the rest turned to glass. Heat licked at her, singeing her exposed legs.
Her battered body lurched again, a few centimeters closer, and her broken limb dragged on the ground. White painfilled her vision, and she gasped, throat suddenly raw. Her fingers slid over metal while the bright agony shooting up from her leg overrode higher thought processes, and her skin communed with the metal.
Hatred and fury stabbed through the, and River slithered around, pushing through the sharp brightness arching through her body, and saw the captain.
He was on fire, his overcoat blazing with clinging incendiaries. One arm was covered in savage black blisters, his hair was burnt off, and he staggered toward her, a hurricane of red-black hate blazing around him as he raised his pistol, face locked in a grimace that was tattooed with murder.
River's pistol shot toward him, but not before he pulled the trigger. She jerked, something impacting in her stomach and sending waves of painful numbness rolling up through her-
- and throwing off her aim by a hair. Her first shot hit him in the burnt arm, blowing through flesh that was already aflame. He didn't even react except to stagger forward, lining her up for another shot. His pistol cracked again, barely audible over the roaring engine behind him and the scattered bits of flame left from the grenade.
Her head snapped sideways, a new pain blasting through her skull and dazzling River, sending light and fuzzy spiraling through all seventeen senses-
focus. remain functional. ignore the sticky warmpainnumbdazzLedazeconcussion
He staggered, roaring something indistinct at her as he fell to one knee, and tried to raise his pistol.
She closed her eyes, found him, and pulled the trigger.
Hate died instantly, leaving only the sound of thundering engines. Fear and selfishness echoed off the hull of the ship, yellow and green chimes, and the pirate ship's pilot took to the sky, abandoning his foolish captain.
Weariness fell over River, and she lay her head back, eyes still closed.
It took her a moment to reboot her brain, as adrenaline danced its merry way through her body.
Catalogue of injuries: hairline fracture in shin. Multiple fractured or broken ribs. Lacerations, bruising of back, vertebrae, possibly wrenched shoulder and back muscles. Bullet lodged in gut, precise location unknown. Head trauma, ninety plus percent probability of concussion (postulate round ricocheting off boulder and bouncing off skull, or maybe shrapnel knocked loose by same) Bruised jaw. Sunburns.
Warmth flowed out of her stomach, pooling on the ground around her, as indistinct periods of time passed. It felt subjective, but was doubtless objective.
This wasn't like the last time she'd been shot. Last time she had been able to feel the round, buried in her flank, nicking the kidney and sending spikes of electrical agony through her every time she moved.
And last time, she'd felt red as Jayne had torn her attackers limb from limb.
No one to do the same this time.
She wanted to try to stand. The weariness disagreed, and gently pushed her down into the dirt, telling her to rest. It was difficult to argue, even with Mal's stubbornness.
Voices, distant, weaving through the wind. Footsteps.
A shadow fell over her. Her eyes opened. Fingers tried to tighten around her pistol, but it was gone.
Someone was yelling something, their voice indistinct, echoing down the tunnel of her ears but getting lost on the way.
Her eyes were weighted with cast iron and lead. She tried to open them, but it was closing time.
The lights went out.
She screamed. A dream of sleep wrapped around her, a still illusion of quiet and death. She knew it was a dream, but that didn't change the sights lurking around her.
Still bodies. Closed eyes of children and adults, curled up, quiet, peaceful.
She backed away from that image, from the bone-white buildings in the distance, the cold green of blooming trees, and the adults and children lying still – deathly still, clouds of rotten brown apathy drifting over them. The clouds turned toward her, reaching up toward her as she retreated, noxious spears of slow, gentle death reaching for her nose and mouth.
She held her breath as she turned to run, to get away from the to-be-dead and the stink of kindly death.
Something closed around her face
"-Simon!" he hissed, close to her face. "It's your brother!"
A frigid chill ran through her, blurry in her perceptions. Groggy chemical fugue mixed with shattered mental disorientation to make a martini mix of confusion.
But someone was close. Close and strange but horribly familiar.
Warm metal locked over her wrists, and sharp piercing steel poked into her forehead. Strong fingers sheathed in worry and love and fear moved over her arms, and the cuffs loosened, and the piercing spear in her head withdrew. Dribbles of blood slithered over her skin, a clear and ringing sensation amidst the fugue.
He withdrew, and her eyes opened, and an old emotion surged into her chest, stabbing into a painful wound that was long since scabbed over. Agony seared through her, but the pain was exhilarating, not awful, and adrenaline surged into her, beating back the fugue.
He was here. Three long gorram years where she'd left hope and the past behind, knowing deep down that he'd never come for her, and he was here, now, afraid and caring and worried and real.
She threw herself up and surged after him, and spoke a name she'd been convinced she would never say to his face again.
"-mon . . . ."
Her throat hurt, and was dry as she spoke. A faint press of attention drifted over her, as someone noticed her.
That should have concerned River, but a blanket of warmth and safety wrapped around her, a sensation that felt alien after everything else that happened recently.
only been two weeks
But felt like months of pain and distance.
Strains of music, old and pleasant sounds of a string instrument she couldn't identify, slid over her ears, lulling her back into darkness.
It felt like Serenity.
She opened her eyes again later, still warm and safe and wrapped up in that blanket of security. The music had stopped. Her eyes flicked around the room, seeing worked stone bricks on three walls and a rice-paper door. Paper lanterns powered by batteries cast a warm orange glow around the room, and an open window carried a hot breeze into the little chamber, along with the faint scent of baking bread. Outside, it was dark.
Her weapons and gear sat on a shelf across the room. That was a positive sign; if she was a prisoner they would be locked up elsewhere, instead of in easy reach. Laertes in particular was a comforting sight, the sword untouched save for the scabbard being cleaned of dust.
Aches rolled up through her body, and her leg was raised in traction. An IV was in her arm, and she could hear the beeping of a monitor as it heralded her good health in its quiet, insistent way. She could feel bandages wrapping around her stomach and leg and head, and a heavy weight of weariness settled over her, pushing her back into sleep.
Before she closed her eyes, she sensed someone near her. She looked up, and saw an old man, face weathered in worry and smile lines, a long white mustache and beard hanging down from his chin and contrasting with his ruddy skin. Black, wide-sleeved robes wrapped around him, belted by a red sash.
She opened her mouth to speak, but he reached down, hand covering her mouth with weathered, calloused fingers. Through his hand, she could feel the warmth and compassion that hung around the room, concentrated.
"Shh, child," the old man whispered. He had a voice like a cathedral, deep and powerful but welcoming, a voice equally suited to shouting in battle and laughing with friends.
"You have had a rough journey," he whispered. "They brought you here to heal, and so you shall. Rest. You are safe here."
A flash of contrariness ran through her, and she tried to speak again. A word starting with "Wh" began in her chest, and made it to her throat before halting, and she was too tired to push it the rest of the way.
"You are in my hospital, child," the old man said, the smile fading, apparently picking up what she meant to say. "I am Doctor Abu Mustafa Muhammad Ibn Haroun al-Rashid ," he continued, the whole, formal Arabic name flowing out like water. "And you have my promise that you are safe."
There was truth in his words, and she didn't argue with him. Her eyes closed, and darkness fell over River again, warm and enfolding and safe.
The bed was soft and warm, with orange lighting at odds with every bed she'd known for the last three years. But more importantly, for the first time in three years, she wasn't alone.
Simon came over, and safety hung around his shoulders, a gentle mantle of care that was almost painful to feel after so long. He spoke gently to her, and she responded without thinking, her mouth talking about sleep without consulting her brain first. None of it, not the ship nor the people nor the warmth nor Simon, seemed more than insubstantial whispers.
She stopped as he sat beside her, pulling the cover up over her, and she reached up. Her fingers touched his face, tracing over his cheekbones and nose and mouth.
Reality flowed up through her fingers. This was truth. The bed and the ship and the people and her brother were the truth.
Wet hotness gathered behind her eyes.
"I didn't think you'd come for me," she blurted. A hint of a smile appeared on his face.
"Well, you're a dummy," he replied.
She grabbed him, pulling him into a clumsy hug, and hot tears ran over her cheeks.
The memory-dream ended, and she was washed into the dark, quiet ocean of slumber in-between . . . and for what seemed the first time in years, River wished she could have stayed in that dream.
Author's Note: This chapter took a long time to write, primarily due to the length and amount of Riverthink. (Riverthink requires additional proofing on top of normal proofing, due to formatting) The chapter itself was heavily inspired by the Avatar: The Last Airbender episode "Zuko Alone" which featured a similar situation, with the titular character having to hare off on his own, experiencing personal conflict and flashbacks while trying to survive. Another thing I wanted to make clear in this chapter is that River is not invincible, as evidenced by how badly battered she ende dup being in this chapter. Maybe it's the Dresden Files influence working its magic (ha ha) on me, with its perpetually battered hero.
The next chapter will be another interlude that will deal with the rest of our intrepid crew who face a much, much darker enemy: boredom. And angst, too, but mostly boredom. We're going to shift away from River for a while (yay!) but rest assured we'll get back to her eventually - and also rest assured that, thankfully, she really is safe and sound for a while.
You may have noticed a scene that closely parallels a similar scene from the "Shepherd's Tale" comic. While the actual story itself is being disregarded for the purposes of this fic (the background for Book in this story is incompatible with the one told in the comic, as I had Book's background laid out years ago when I started writing this tale) I will be integrating whatever elements I can from that comic into the character's background that fit.
If there's anyone out there reading this who speaks proper Arabic, I apologize if I screwed up Dr. al-Rashid's name. I put some research into it, but I suspect that I screwed up something. If there's a problem, let me know. As an aside, I used Peter Renaday as my mental voice for Dr. al-Rashid's voice (for reference, he is the voice-actor for Duncan in Dragon Age: Origins and al-Mualim in Assassin's Creed)
Until next chapter . . . .