Chapter Four: Breakdown
She did not take the reality of what was done to her brain well. What they left inside of her has made her question herself. She hates it; that much I can see in her whenever we talk about it.
I see now that telling her may have been a mistake. She is intelligent, capable, and independently-willed, but she has not escaped that place. I can see that much in how she talks about it. Though she is no longer afraid of it, she still feels the pain, and I suspect something worse than fear has taken root in her.
Forty-Four Days Ago
River sat, stillness in her muscles and shock pulsing through her arteries. Long moments passed, and Rashid looked up. Guilt curled around his shoulders, accompanied by concern and weariness.
He knew. He'd known, for the entire time she had been his patient. He'd kept it hidden, somehow; a secret he had buried with his others.
He understood what she was. The powers. The nightmares. The curseblessingpowerweakness of her mind.
And River understood that it changed nothing.
Maybe some of the colors and the echoes of his words in the past were different in retrospect. But that was all that those words changed. She could still see him, see the emotions dancing about him, his thoughts and character and the fiber of iron-hard honesty and devotion that pulsed in his skin alongside red blood cells.
Were she a normal person, this revelation would cast doubt and suspicion, but she wasn't normal. The truth of a person could not truly be hidden from her, whether terrible nor noble. In the wake of shock at his admission, River found no burning heat or sharp hostility, just . . . understanding. Understanding, and a creeping breeze of exhaustion.
"I am sorry I revealed this without warning," he said, clasping his fingers. Honesty and worry slid around his shoulders, and River nodded quickly.
"It is . . . abrupt," she admitted. She shook her head. "But . . . not alarming. I am just. Abrupt. Um. Well, surprised that . . . ." She was fumbling over her words. Someone who knew what she could do but wasn't family nor the enemy was disconcerting. The last man who had been neither was Colonel Dannet. Finally, she managed a word that encompassed her emotions at this unexpected kick in the ribs.
"This so-called 'Academy' that you survived," Rashid said, closing his eyes. Old, scarred pain cutacross him. Pain and regret. "It was not the first incarnation of such a project. I know little of the current operation, beyond the ugly secrets you have told me. I certainly did not know that they had reached a point where they were manufacturing assassins. But prior to this 'Academy,' there were other projects researching the viability of 'telesthetics' and their military applications. Not all were Alliance-funded."
"Independents," River said, and Rashid nodded.
"I was part of such a team," he said. "We were not directly involved with human experimentation. We were . . . I would say reverse-engineering what the Alliance discovered. Or attempting. We never progressed past a realization of what they were up to. Certainly we never reached the point where we would have been experimenting on humans - though I question whether or not we wouldn't have. The Independents were desperate toward the end."
He shook his head, refocusing his attention.
"My group was small. We did not have the funding for more than a small naval taskforce, a few hundred soldiers, a small bioengineering team. We spent years raiding Alliance research, piecing together their data. Project Chimera. Project Origin. Project Scaleless. And rescuing those that we could. Too few."
River could see flickers and glimpses. Pain and regret, while staring at her own blood-soaked hands. Disgust and pity mixing as she looked upon a man with a hundred wires running from an open braincase, screaming and thrashing. A line of scientists, hooded, bound, trembling, up until a shout and a hail of gunfire cut them down, recoilrunning up her arms as she fired the weapon.
She jerked, gasping, and he closed his eyes and sighed.
"I did not intend for you to see that," he murmured. River's fingers swiped over her eyes and came away wet. She shivered, and the images pulled away as he tried shutting them out. A trail of blood ran around his face, though, splashing on his skin.
old men covered in blood, it doesn't touch them but they're drowning in it
"The war was a source of shame for many," he whispered. "And it is a terrible regret on my part that the very horrors I fought against haven't ended."
"Not yet," River whispered, clenching her fists. Certainty echoed in her words. Certainty tinged with blood. and those words became a promise. "Not yet."
Silence, for several long moments, and as the ugly pain faded, she remembered why he had called her to this office. She unclenched her fingers, relaxing as best as the tightening horror of his memory would allow her, and spoke.
"Yes," she said. "To your question. My abilities have grown stronger."
"As I suspected," Rashid said, relief rolling off of him as their focus changed. "I need to show you why."
"This has not been a fruitful interview," Ornstintz said, steepling his fingers and peering at the crazy, obstinate girl. He kept a thin smile on his face, and remained confident. He wasn't entirely sure if she could tell that he was having to work just a little to keep it up, but the memory of what happened during another interview with this same girl was hard to shake.
"You're not writing anything," she murmured, and he nodded.
"I'm not that stupid."
"You brought armed guards," she replied, and her smile grew a bit. It was a bloody grin, but that just made it a bit more disturbing. He could imagine the programming inside of her brain was lashing out like a savage animal.
"I'm confident that they can shoot you before you get out of those restraints," he replied. "Not even you are that fast."
"Assumptions," One-Three-Seven muttered, shaking her head. "Safe behind a wall of paper and glass. I can see the foundations of your confidence. Quicksand and uncertainty."
"Yes, assumptions," he replied, leaning forward in interest. Lucidity was all well and good, but only when the subject was cooperating. It was the sing-song loony babble that revealed the most interesting things about the subject; when the host for the weapon programming became stressed, the host's reaction to that stress could be illuminating.
"Like you assumed you could kill me," he continued. "Like you assumed you were the most dangerous thing in the galaxy."
"Lots more dangerous," she replied. "Dresden Zero-One-Eight. Ahmad Nine-One. Ahmad Nine-Three-Beta. Toreno-Zero-Six-Six."
He blinked at that list of names. They sounded like . . . Asteroids?
"Asteroids on an unstable orbit with Persephone," Dupree offered from her spot between them, near the door. "Scheduled for routine orbit correction or demolition."
"Thank you, Dupree," Ornstintz said, frowning.
"If I wanted you dead," One-Three-Seven said with a sudden giggle. "Bit of course correction. Complex math, but not that complex. Rocks fall, everyone dies."
A chill slashed through him at those words and the implication. She'd been considering dropping an asteroid on the planet to kill him?
"Just an option," she said, and the chill reached his stomach. "Just a possibility. I wanted to do it face to face. Personal. Knife, electricity. But hidden."
She stopped suddenly, shaking her head, and her eyes widened a bit in surprise. Onstintz sensed confusion and vulnerability as her mind caught up with itself and realized what she was saying. He moved quickly to exploit the instability.
"Personal?" he asked. "You know what's personal? Eight criminals on a dilapidated Firefly-class cruiser spending the rest of their lives in prison awaiting a death sentence."
That got her attention, and the confusion was replaced by horror. He leaned forward, projecting every bit of confidence he had into his next words while she was off-balance.
"You think they can hide from us? Two-thirds of the Alliance Navy are patrolling the Border and Rim, putting out those brushfires started by your transmission eight months ago. You think that they can hide from that many ships? You think an unarmed pile of rusty go se can do anything against Alliance battlegroups hunting insurgents?"
He slammed a hand on the table, and she flinched. He saw tears start forming in her eyes.
"The only hope that they have is if we don't care about them anymore," he snarled. "And you can help make sure we don't."
He stood, leaning over the girl, who was trembling at the force of his voice and from her own violent mood-swings.
"Tell me. About. The fucking. Treatments."
Forty-Four Days Ago
"When I analyzed your brain, I confirmed my suspicions about what you are," Rashid said.
"They call people like me 'empaths," River mumbled. "Passive and active detection of emotional states, physical states, mechanical and electrical states. High value due to long-range sensory capability, estimate maximum range one hundred and-"
She shut her mouth, shaking her head. Uncontrolled rambling; never a good sign.
"Indeed," Rashid said with a nod. The oscillation of his colors said that he wasn't put off by her babbling. "I determined as much when I studied your brain's scarring. It resembled the earlier work from Project Chimera, though far more sophisticated. But there was more than just neurosurgical scarring. This is what we found."
Rashid gestured to the display, turning it with flicks of intent and fingertips. The layers of her brain shifted and faded bit by bit, revealing a fine outline of her brain's shape. Tiny gossamer threads formed an intricate tracing of her neural tissue, nearly as solid as the brain she had just been observing. Small needlehead-sized nodes were scattered along the interior of the shimmering brain-outline.
River leaned closer to the display. Chills crawled down her spine, spiders of ice prick-prick-prickling along her vertebrae. Her eyes flicked to Rashid, and a clear thought-drawing hovered around him, lending context and knowledge to the thing she was staring at.
"That is a atom-thin lace of superconducting wire," he said. "Grafted to your brain cells in a pattern matching your own brain's structure, with nodes intersecting in the sections of your brain that were most severely scarred."
She stared at the display, and found herself shivering.
"That wasn't there before," she whispered, and Rashid nodded.
"You said that your brother had conducted brain scans with a neuro-imager on Ariel. I do not doubt his findings. This must have manifested during your freedom."
"How?" River asked, but the answer formed and supplied itself before Rashid even spoke. "It was built. That would require . . ." She calculated, hypothesized, and concluded with swift certainty. "It would require sophisticated nanotech injected into my brain during my captivity. Nothing else could have constructed this while I was free."
"Likely shortly before your brother rescued you," he said with a nod. "The neural stripping you suffered removed sections of your brain to allow this . . ." He spat invisible poison. "Construct to form."
"Function?" her mouth asked, while the rest of her twisted in a swirl of disgust, horror, and curiosity.
"Obviously, it enhances your mental acuity," he said, his voice troubled. "The design is patterned after smaller-scale neural implants. It assists in mental processing capability, reactions, planning, problem solving, and so on. And the device almost certainly enhances your extrasensory capabilities. The 'telesthetic' component."
"Thus, your fist-in-brain-words," River muttered. He raised an eyebrow, confusion echoing from the sound of her nonstandard words. River shook her head. "Your question regarding my powers. My senses. Precognition, empathic detection and analysis, extreme reaction speed and perception."
"Yes," he said with a nod. "This thing growing in your brain is responsible for it, I am almost certain."
She stared at the ghostly gossamer outline of her brain, and the millions hair-thin wires threading among the neural bundles that defined her. A shiver slid along her vertebrae, and among the chills, she felt something else beating deep within her, pulsing in time with her blood as she stared at their mark on her.
"How do we kill it?"
Rashid nodded. He knew what she was going to ask before she said it.
"This device is . . . Impressive, in its complexity," he whispered. "I have seen neural laces before, including cybernetic interfaces to allow remote mechanical control or grafts to repair neural damage, but this is far beyond what I have ever seen. Nothing like it was present at any of the Alliance projects we destroyed. Until I scanned your brain, I didn't think something this complex was possible with our current technology."
River listened to his words and heard the meaning underneath them. The heat-anger flared a bit higher.
"Metal parasite," she muttered, the rage clawing and biting. "How do we kill it?"
"I do not know if I can," he admitted, shaking his head, and her body sank into her chair. "I brought you here to warn you of this, but I also wanted to ask you for permission to-"
"I don't care what you do," River said, and heard the burning furnace inside belching heat into her words. "I want it dead. I want it out!"
Rashid sat back, concern coiling around him, and River realized she was standing. Her fingers cut into her palms, eight tiny blades biting her skin. Her jaw ached, teeth clenching and grinding. And within her, the furnace burned and thrashed, a serpent of rage demanding release.
She uncoiled her fingers and relaxed her muscles with careful deliberation. The furnace raged bright and hard, demanding violence, and she squeezed her eyes shut, forcing herself to sit down. She could not reign it in, but she could control her physical response to the fury, though it took long, unsteady minutes for the furnace to burn down and allow her some measure of rational thought again.
"I wish to take a biopsy, if you will consent to it," Rashid eventually said, once she had calmed. "I want to acquire a sample of the nanomachines in your brain."
"Fractal programming projection," River said as the part of her not boiling with heat-hate processed his words.
"If I can study the machines' programming and the patterns of what they are assembling," Rashid said, "I can begin determining what they are building, as well as how to remove this thing from you without damaging your brain in the process."
Silence, eventually ended by a slow nod.
"Do it," she whispered.
Ornstintz set the recording datapad down, arms crossed. She spoke haltingly, in a low, quiet voice, interspersed with sniffs as she sobbed. Pain had not worked, but love and family were an easy avenue for the weapon that believed she was still a person and clung to the trappings of humanity.
"One dose per day," she murmured. "Current regimen demands once per twenty-five hours at rate of current tolerance and metabolization, down from two times per day six months ago."
Tears streamed down from River's cheeks as the girl spoke, detailing the treatments her brother gave her to maintain her lucidity. Ornstintz recorded them carefully, a smile of triumph accompanying the monologue. Dupree watched the girl's slow confession with an air of unease marring her brow.
"Was that so hard?" he asked as she finished, and the girl sniffled quietly. He scowled at the crying weapon-host, and shook his head.
"This is what we've spent over a year trying to recover?" he asked, glancing at Dupree. "A girl who can barely stand a few harsh questions before breaking down into a sobbing wreck?"
"That sobbing wreck wiped out forty-seven Reavers in close combat by herself," Dupree replied. "When motivated, she is dangerous."
"I don't see dangerous," Ornstintz grunted. "I see pathetic. I see something that needs to become another Merlin to be viable for our purposes. Or at least can be part of the gestation experiments."
Dupree opened her mouth to speak, but a buzzing from her coat pocket caught her attention. She took the phone out and glanced at the wafer-thin communicator, before looking up.
"Priority, sir," she said. She gave a significant glance to River. "I should step outside for a moment."
"Not like it will matter," Ornstintz said. "One-Three-Seven can just pluck it out of your brain. And besides, she won't see the outside of a prison cell or operating theater for the foreseeable future."
"Still, sir, I don't think we should make a-"
"Fine," Ornstintz said with an irritated wave of his hand. Dupree nodded and stepped toward the door. One of the armored guards outside checked her and let her outside, and she started talking urgently into the phone.
The door sealed closed and locked again, leaving Ornstintz alone in the room with the girl, the two guards, and the pair looming, blue-suited agents.
"I think the only person slightly sympathetic to you is gone now," Ornstintz said. "So, let's continue. Don't think the sobbing fit you just went through will save you from-"
She looked up suddenly, her eyes and face red, and her eyes fixed him. Anger, sudden and hot, shone through the tears on her face.
"I know what you put in my skull," she snarled. "The thing growing there. The metal cancer. The nanotech neural lace wrapping itself around my brain."
Ornstintz blinked in surprise. How the hell had she learned of that? She would need access to a high-end neural imager to detect that, and someone with the knowledge of advanced medical nanotech to understand what it was they were looking at. Not even her brother had that kind of specialized knowledge. Interesting.
Then, a slow smile cut across his features.
"Then you know that we own you," he said, and girl's the anger grew even more intense. He nodded, a realization making her recent actions all the more clear. "That's why you went on this suicide run, isn't it? That's why docile little River Tam became this rampaging assassin. All or nothing, right?"
He saw frustrated rage mixed with mounting despair in her eyes, and started laughing again.
"And look where your wrath got you, kid."
Thirty-Five Days Ago
The days between revelation and results were long and anxious. The biopsy had been swift; she'd gone under for a few minutes - long enough for nanoprobes to be extracted - and then spent half a day in recovery battling Boredom. The reality of what had happened, of the mark branded into her brain, left the new heat seething within her. She wanted to burn through it on the training grounds, but once released from recovery she forced herself to hold back for everyone's safety. The last thing she wanted was to lose the control - now so tenuous - that she had forged with discipline and reconciliation with the weapon. She trained by herself, but even then the furnace surged bright and violent; three training weapons broke as she beat practice dummies.
That terrified her more than anything else.
When a nurse called her to Rashid's office one night, River walked with equal steps of trepidation and excitement. Rashid was a genius, far more so than her. He had to know how to remove this evil metal brand buried within her mind.
River paused outside his door, emotions jumbling together, and knocked.
"Please, come in, River," he called, and his voice echoed with weariness. Heart pounding, River opened the door.
He sat behind his desk, looking older than she remembered. Or that was what the colors and threads and inks of his pages made him look. She entered cautiously, feet tracing as though landmines and vipers covered the floor, and closed the door behind her.
"Unfortunate news," she said. It wasn't a question, and the pulse of anger and weariness from him confirmed the statement better than any words. She sat down, breathing slowly, worry and anxiety clawingover her chest and dimming the heat from the furnace within. He touched his keyboard as she settled in, and the room dimmed. The hologram showing her brain appeared again, with the gossamer brand of superconducting wire burned into it highlighted.
"I have finished extrapolating the fractal programming in the nanomachines," he said after a few moments. He met her eyes, and exhaled. "I did not expect what I found."
The fear spiked and danced again.
"Can you kill it?" she asked.
"Possibly," he replied. "I know that we certainly can destroy this construct, but I do not know if I can do so without killing you, or at least making the neural scarring even worse. The device is not simply inhabiting parts of your mind. It is actively replacing damaged sections of your brain, and taking over some of your cognitive functions. Tell me, River, you have been growing less unstable over the last year, have you not?"
River closed her eyes, the fear replaced by a horrible realization.
She had believed that her lucidity had been a result of mental and physical recovery. The warm walls of Serenity, the stalwart love of her family, her strengthening certainty of her place in the world and how she could protect them. She thought she was healing. She assumed that she was healing.
And as she understood, the furnace burned bright, flaring up and snarling.
"I thought that I was," she whispered. "Hypothesis was that I was recovering from mental trauma, but-"
"You were," he said, gentle honesty in his words. "Recovery from the mental trauma and your strength and self-confidence were indeed much of what made-"
"Don't patronize," she hissed, and shook her head. "I know."
"I am not," he replied, still gentle. "But not all of your strength came from this device. It could only strengthen what was already-"
"Stop," she snapped, and then closed her eyes. Shame and contrition sparked across her, and she held up a hand. "I apologize. I-"
"I understand," he said, and went silent for a while, letting her sort herself out as best she could. It took long moments for the anger and renewed burst of self-loathing to simmer away. The anger was newer and more intense than ever, but the self-loathing was familiar. It was the same sort that burst forth whenever she thought of where Simon would have been - should have been - if it weren't for her.
She started to open her eyes, but wetness covered her cheeks. She wiped the tears, and with a shuddering sigh, she nodded.
"Continue," she murmured.
"This construct is very intricate and has integrated itself thoroughly into your brain," he said, his words slow and steady, like all bad news. "If I remove it now, then it would at worst kill you or render you braindead. At best, it would render your back to the state you were in when you were released from that place."
Memories of jumbled sensations. Chaos and thoughts, not sure if they were hers or another's. Names, uncertainty, cold steel of guns and knives. Pain and screaming, laughter and compassion. Metal skin holding warmth in the void. The first weeks had been horrible, as she couldn't figure out what was happening around her among the voices and violence and happiness.
She didn't want to return to that.
"I want it gone," she muttered, and he nodded.
"I shall see what we can do. But there is a second issue you should know of."
She nodded, but the swirl of color around him made her even more worried and anxious. He had not spoken of the worst news?
"I now know what these nodes are for," he said. "And they are part of the reason why the nanoweave lace is so tightly integrated with your brain. They are receivers."
Liquid nitrogen chilled her spine.
"Specifically," he continued, "they are small Cortex receivers. The kind that would be used to receive data from any interstellar router. There are also indications of the microprocessors needed to decode information received. And judging by the patterns of construction, the lace appears to be capable of directly feeding electrical impulses to your brain's cognitive and motor functions."
River stared, shivering horror accompanying the comprehension of those words, and the dark implications. It took her a moment to fully appreciate what it all meant.
Remote cognitive and motor control anywhere within range of wireless Cortex.
"How long?" River asked, frigid claws wrapped around her heart.
"I estimate that the neural lace will reach the point where it can receive commands and override your own faculties within eight months," Rashid said, weary resignation resting on his shoulders. "After that, a single transmission will be all they need to kill or recapture you, and there is no way to stop it."
"-seven minutes, once he gives the order," Caroline Dupree said as she paced in the antiseptic hallway. She was about fifteen meters down from the makeshift interrogation room, and could see the dozen security troops standing in the hallway around the door, just in case River tried something.
She paused, listening to the reply on her phone, but only paid half a mind to it, for the white tiles and lights of the hallway became a sudden contrast to the black-and-gray tones of the thing that stepped around the corner of an intersection not five meters away.
"Yes," she said quietly. "Everything's ready. I need to go now."
She quickly closed the phone and collapsed it as the blank visage of the Merlin turned, peering up and down the hallway. The black and gray of the thing's armor and clothing underneath clashed violently with the white and silver of the hospital, but even more disconcerting was the steady smoothness of its movements: liquid but slow, like flowing molasses.
"Lancelot," she said as its blank face settled on her. The Merlin turned its whole body in a single steady, smooth twist to face Dupree, and she fought down the urge to just spin around and bolt. She knew how predators reacted to that, and the fact that this predator was on a leash of cybernetic implants and hardwired radio controls did nothing to soothe her.
"Why are you here?" she asked. It stared at her for a moment. She suspected it was thinking, but thought on its part would demand resisting against the very limitations that had been forced on the lunatic mind within that helmet. "You were ordered to patrol."
"This. Patrol." The grating voice chilled her, and she saw one arm point down, a finger extending.
"You are supposed to patrol the rooftop," she said, and the head cocked slightly, blank visage boring into her where she stood. Dupree kept the trembling at that gaze under control. It was like talking to a child. A child made up of equal parts mad hate and bleeding-edge cybernetics.
"Fear?" the grating had a questioning edge to it, and the Merlin took a slow, liquid step closer.
"Why are you disobeying orders, Lancelot?" she demanded, stilling herself and speaking more loudly. Where were the security troops? She would have looked over her shoulder for them, if she wasn't terrified of pulling her gaze away from the Merlin's blank mask.
"You. Understand." The creature paused, head cocking slightly in the opposite direction. The pressure of its gaze shifted, directed over her shoulder, and Dupree released a breath she didn't know she was holding. "Know."
And Dupree did indeed understand what it wanted.
"Yes, I do," Dupree said, forcing strength into her words and resisting the urge to step back away from the Merlin. "You are not permitted to be this close to Empath-One-Three-Seven."
"Her!" the sharp hiss of that tone make her jerk, and both of the Merlin's hands closed into fists so tight that she could hear the cables within the gloves creaking. "Name. Tam."
"Yes, she did," Dupree said with a nod. "She had a name. Not anymore."
A flicker, swift as an eyeblink, and it stood within arm's reach of her. Dupree jerked back in shock at Lancelot's sheer speed, and took two more steps away from it as she realized how close it was. Her heart slammed up into her chest.
A low rumbling came from the Merlin, and after several moments it finally spoke.
"I will. Kill. Hurt. Her. For smiling."
Dupree took another step back at what was almost a complete sentence on Lancelot's part. The Merlin was acting too much on its own. Thinking too much. And a thinking Merlin in close quarters was a nightmare few would want to contemplate.
"Return to your patrol, Lancelot," she ordered. It stared back at her, and another molasses-slow step began. Dupree watched that movement, and knew that if the lunatic brain inside the Merlin had another bout of madness-driven self-control, the damage could be terrible. If it got into the interrogation room . . . .
She pulled out her phone and stepped into the killing machine's path, and could distantly hear a couple of guards running toward them, finally alerted to the danger. Lancelot slowed to a halt as she blocked its path, and she dialed Onstintz's communicator.
"Carol?" he asked a moment later.
"Will?" she asked, staring into the Merlin's eyes, or where she guessed the eyes were. "Lancelot is outside. Can you call off your dog?"
Several seconds passed, in which the Merlin simply stared at her, unmoving. The guards stopped a few meters away, weapons shouldered; they had some idea of what the Merlin could do, but not enough. If they did they would be a lot farther away. Lancelot didn't react to them at all.
The Merlin abruptly stood straight, jerking out of a fighting crouch she hadn't realized it stood in. The blank facemask stared at her for a moment, and then it pivoted in pace with the same liquid slowness and started walking away with long, smooth, purposeful strides.
Dupree did not take her eyes off the killing machine until it turned down the corridor and was out of sight.
Twenty-One Days Ago
The low, distant rumble of laboring engines ran through the deck beneath his feet. He knelt on the carpet in his quarters, letting the familiar, steady noise and vibration soothe his thoughts. Use of engines to help strengthen meditation was an established practice, though one needed a well-maintained ship to manage it reliably. But his personal ship was among the most well-maintained in the 'Verse, and within his small, austere quarters, the man who had named himself Nemo found stillness and clarity. In the calm, focused, relaxed state of mind, he could escape from the countless weights borne of a planned insurgency and system-wide insurrection,
And more importantly, he could escape from the crushing pressure of his own conscience. It was not easy to live with the knowledge that all of the horrors he had inflicted on the world were done in the name of a lie. Meditation had helped to silence the screams while he had been an Operative, and now it helped silence his own guilt - for a time, at least.
Helping the idealistic fools who still wanted to fight was part of his atonement, but there wasn't much hope, really. Not yet; they were but a candle flickering in the wind. But he had seen a candle set a great conflagration before; Malcolm Reynolds proved that even the weak could be mighty, and achieve the impossible if they stood with strength and fought with intelligence.
It was in this state of peace and clarity that a low beeping sound cut across his perceptions, and he opened his eyes. He glanced across his small cabin to the terminal, and rose with careful, deliberate motions. It was set to only alert him of extremely high-priority messages from a small number of contacts; everything else could wait until after he was finished meditating.
His hands flicked over the interface, bringing up the message in question, and his eyes widened a fraction of a centimeter. It was a short, simple text message, but he source was the last thing he had expected, but foremost in his hopes.
I have reconsidered your proposal. Meet me at this location alone.
The rest of the message was a set of landing coordinates on the dusty moon where she had crashed.
Nemo started to compose a reply, and found a small smile forming on his face.
The weak candle burned just a bit brighter now.
"How did you learn of this?" Ornstintz asked, putting away his phone. He didn't let the worry he'd felt at Lancelot's actions show. He'd deal with that later. One-Three-Seven didn't answer his question, instead simply glaring at him with that hateful madness. He suspected she didn't even know how close the Merlin had come.
"It's not like it helps you, really," he added. "You don't have the equipment to remove it."
"Death solves the equation," she hissed. Blood dribbled down her wrists where she kept pulling at the restraints.
"You're too useful to allow to die, One-Three-Seven," Ornstintz said. He leaned back in his chair, and shook his head. "You've already tried suicide once before, and that didn't work out too well, did it? Besides, you still have one weakness. And fortunately for your family, I'm not a liar."
She snorted, a rueful laugh, and he shrugged.
"Oh, well, you got me there. But I'm telling the truth," he continued. "With you in our possession, we have no further reason to hunt Reynolds and his crew. They're safe now, so long as you cooperate."
"Skeptical," she muttered. He shrugged.
"I have no reason to lie about it," he replied. "So long as you play by the rules and do as we say, we will never touch your family again." His smile grew. "You're not getting out of here, except in a box with enough drugs in you to keep you asleep for months. You know what's easiest for everyone. Just be a good girl."
He saw the wheels whirl in her head at relativistic speed. Emotions flickered across her features - anger, despair, pain, hope. One-Three-Seven was considering the pros and cons of cooperation, and he could tell as he watched her that she was coming to the same conclusion over and over. There was only one end that would result in the best possible outcome. And after several moments of furious internal debate, he saw her yield to the truth.
River Tam slumped in her chair and nodded. She took a slow breath, angry and exhausted, and spoke.
"Agreed," she spat, the word like acid.
"Good," he said with a smile. He didn't hide the victory in his voice; she could see it plain as day. It was over. One-Three-Seven had surrendered.
The door slid open, and Ornstintz looked up. Dupree walked in, anxiety in her gait. No surprise there, considering she'd just been staring down Lancelot. She exhaled in relief as the door locked behind her.
"You fine, Carol?" he asked, and the doctor nodded. She glanced to the slumped girl.
"While you were out," Ornstintz said, unable to hide the smug satisfaction he was feeling, "our subject here finally realized cooperation was preferable."
"I see," Dupree said, and coughed. "That is excellent, I would say."
"Now, One-Three-Seven," Ornstintz said, turning back to the girl. "I still have questions to ask."
He was about to speak again when Dupree coughed once more, this time louder. He glanced at her in annoyance for the interruption, and turned back toward the girl. As he did so, he heard a sudden but curious sound: both of the agents flanking him shifting in place, as if on alert.
When his eyes reached River, he saw why. She was suddenly sitting up straight, and the girl was staring back at him with rapt attention.
Then she started giggling.
He blinked in surprise as she shook in her chair, smiling, and bowed her head, laughing quietly.
"What the hell is so funny?" he demanded after a moment, and she slowed down. After a moment, she raised her head again, exhaled, and smiled.
"Because," she murmured, eyes suddenly bright and alert. He saw something in them that startled him.
Absolute lucidity. Not the flickers he'd seen when she'd bitten him, or the angry desperation a moment ago as before she surrendered. There was absolute clarity in that smile.
"Two reasons," River said, and pushed herself back into her chair. "You have made multiple assumptions, based on fallacious reasoning, which I find hilarious."
He stared back at her, expression blank and confused. What the hell was going on? She'd just-
"First," River said, her smile fading. "You think I am still an emotional wreck. You believe that I am unstable, ineffective, defeated. That is a reasonable but terribly erroneous assumption. I am functional."
In the silence that followed that odd statement, Ornstintz heard something. A faint click, like a clasp releasing. He looked up, head snapping toward Dupree. It sounded like it came from her medical bag. She raised an eyebrow at his expression.
"The second fact," River whispered, and he looked back to her, "is that you assume physically restraining me will keep you safe. You should know better by now that restraints are irrelevant."
The smile vanished. She sat at ease, her eyes impossibly sane, her hands loose and relaxed in their restraints. The rage was still there, but tempered by something.
Then the room went pitch-black as the lights died, and the backups did not kick in.
"Because I can kill you with my brain."
Author's Notes: This is where the asskicking begins.
Until next chapter . . . . .