chapter six: The World, The Flesh and The Devil

Someone is in pain. He should do something about that, he's a doctor after all...

Breaking through the dark waters of unconsciousness – Simon Tam lets out a long loud gasp for oxygen, pure reflex, no thoughts to confuse the mind for the space of that one life-full breath. He tries to force words through his parched mouth.

"Here," and a straw between cracked lips, blessed coolness. "Don't try talking."

"...mother?"

"Hush, baby," Hand on his brow, "it's gonna be fine..."

Zoe, glad of something positive to do, adjusts the drug-patch on his temple. With what they got, and what Mal brought back, she can improvise. She's done more with less, before.

He looks so young. Man's eyes hidden, it's a boy's face, shadowed with bruises. Reckons that look of youth was never hers; time she was his age, war was about done. Remembers a sergeant his age, though, burning with a cause - same fire in this boy. That's why he and the captain clash; don't either of them like to be taking orders, gotta be the one giving them.

Zoe don't mind orders, don't mind being seen to follow. Truth of life was always more complicated - take her and Mal. He'd been a living banner through the war, and even with the heart ripped out of him, he'd held them alive in that Valley. She owed him for that, they all did, though she hadn't thought to see him again, when she was 'repatriated' from the 'rehabilitation centre' - and then he'd turned up, still in that coat of his and his eyes full of nothing but valley shadow. She'd followed his ragged lead - there weren't no-one else to do it, and when he told her he needed to fly free, well, he needed someone to watch his wings. Yeah, doing him a favour... didn't think too much of where his lead might take her... didn't figure that he might just take her home.

Introduced her to a worrisome man with a dreadful taste in shirts. Next thing she knew, she'd been as lost as the captain and never knew it. If Mal's heart had been broken, then hers had damn near turned to ice... and it didn't seem that no amount of righteous vengeful fire would thaw it out.

It had needed Wash.

As for Mal, he gathered a flock of the broken, the dispossessed. Looks again at the tired face sliding back into sleep. She knows why he keeps these two on board. Ain't to do with anything you could put words to exactly. But it's a little to do with watching kids shot through the lungs, a little to do with sending those same kids out through the wires, a little to do with the way he's always been one to spit at the lightening, to take the road less travelled.

Watched too many kids slip away - death's not taking this one.

...

Mal can see a pool of light, a figure ahead of him in the corridors, but the suit tells him who it is even before he gets within earshot of the cussing.

Noakes is intent on another wall-panel, poking in the guts.

"...darn hard-burn storage crap. You are gonna give yourself up, even if I gotta tunnel through the gorram walls..."

"What'n hell you looking for in there?"

Twitchy, rheumy glance, assessing.

"Still want them central files, the brains of this thing. Should be able to crack this stuff wide open, but everytime I think I'm close, what I want is elsewhere."

"Ain't that just like life." Mal has little sympathy. "We're collecting our strays and heading out. 'Less you want YOUR brains scrambled more'n they are, I'd advise you to be doing the same."

"You aren't a bit curious about this place, are you, Reynolds?"

"All I'm seeing is a whole lot of empty nothing here. Nothing to say who or how or why. Just walls and floors and ceilings. Whoever these folk were, they left here a long time ago. It's a good example to follow."

But what Noakes is following seems to be a logic all his own.

"You're just talking up the 'what', captain, reckon I can lay my hand on the 'where,' see?" His oddly dextrous fingers splay out across the wires. "True enough that this ship of fools was flyin' blind. Destination co-ordinates unknown, the maps were never drawn, and the Endeavour lost..."

"But?"

Mal regrets (too late) triggering the gleam in the old timer's eyes.

"It's the mechanics, the hardware... See? It was sent on ahead. And that ship we can trace. " Slaps a hand, proprietary-like, on the wall. "We got us a point of origin."

"Don't know that a box of drilling rigs is gonna add much to the sum of our knowledge. 'Less we can sell it for scrap." Mal smirks. Noakes glares. It's becoming a familiar dance.

"You got no use for any kind of ideals, have you, Reynolds?"

"Left them behind in a muddy valley long ago," Something cold and dark behind Mal's eyes. "Live in the here and now. LEAVE in the here and now," he adds.

Noakes subsides, knows when not to push; it's a skill he's developed surviving one hard knock boss after another. Truth to tell, he's been noticing a buzzing in his ears, stiffness in his fingers that ain't entirely down to the years.

...

Shepherd Book stands hunched over the desk, in the radio room, in the maze
of the ship, inside a plastic shell and beneath a crust of stellar debris, the
dirt of stars. Stands there and tries to make sense of it all.

Thoughts, memories, voices – nagging at his head like the pain he can feel
from the ship's magnetic field… yes, they would get sick if they dallied too
long… if they stayed.


"Seems I recall you're actually leaving..."
Mal's words. Yes – Book meant to leave, meant to go. But the 'go where exactly' of his destination – that was just one of so many unanswered questions right now.


Been led along this road, I feel it – so strongly… COULD I be wrong?

Fingers sifting the frantic notes and scribbles left on the desk, all the
anonymous ciphers left behind by the radio operator. THEY had gone – the crew
of this strange place – and the Shepherd can't help but feel bound up in their
journey somehow.

Haven. The word has haunted him. And holding up a half torn note he reads
the word - the name – yet again.

All codes and ciphers need a key. Book looks across the room now, through
the stark light, he looks at the pale features of the girl - he looks at River.

She fears this man. An instinctive terror, small creature hiding from claws in the night.

Backs away as far as she can, "It's not me, it's not me, it's not me," looped like one of the Endeavour's recordings.

"Child – it IS you, has to be." River can feel his affection. His urge to reassure just makes it worse. "Shh…" he is saying, "listen – do you hear?"

"Tell me!"

River opens her mouth…

And then the world breaks down – Shepherd Book wonders if his brain has suddenly haemorrhaged – his vision, his sight – reality slides… as if some higher hand just de-tuned the universe. The magnetic field – he tells himself, clutching at his reason… the Endeavour… the girl…

For a moment there is simply the horror of the abyss, vacancy – and then chaos, fragments, the atoms and elements in their ribald play, crashing together, clashing, colliding, cooling and solidifying – one reality wiped away, dissolved and replaced.

There is rain - dashing like earth against the windows, bugs flutter at the screen. A child's laughter momentarily distinct is lost in the trickle of mournful notes - a long forgotten piano lesson fading in turn to a cushioned and ostentatious quiet.

"Why are we here… where is…" Book tries to focus – has to focus. "Where are we River?"

"No place like home."

This room, its owner's imprint stamped in the luxury of the furnishings, the rich carpets, the velvet drapes, the light sensitive blinds, the holo-aquarium with its eternal carp.

The wide desk, the thick glass decanter, the black square picture frames, the wire and plastic of the flat monitor screen, the surveillance camera controls, the security fence.

The cabinets – the cups and medals, the awards and certificates, the man was on display – the man was the display.

Gabriel Tam.

"Have you remembered it River?" he asks, leaning back indulgently in the leather of his seat, there is a precise angle between the rise of his brow and the down turn of his mouth, the retreat of his jowls. River has measured it often. "Well?"

The child's eyes dance for a moment searching for exits, escape routes – rescuers.

"Simon…"

"Don't hide behind your brother River. Not here, not with me. Tyen shiao duh … The Two of you… It's unhealthy. Even he realizes that…"

A pause.

"So? Have you remembered?"

The child meets his gaze. Her nod is dutiful enough, but still - something wilful in the girl's posture.

"Of course," she says. "It was easy… only, only well…it was pretty dull."

An indulgent chuckle, "Well, I'll be sure and tell Mr Frost. He'll be glad of the criticism I don't doubt. Still, you did remember – so why not grace us with a display of your talent, River? You know your mother is so looking forward to the recital – she'll be the envy of every parent there."

The child frowns.

"River? Be a good girl now."

Small 'o' of a mouth, the black button eyes and the hands in a polite position behind her back – where her unseen fingers can be crossed.

"Go, dumb-born book, tell her that sang me once… … with song upon her lips

but sings not out the song…"

The man in the chair rocks back - a flailing hand, the upturned glass, the warm amber liquid upon the carpet, the man rocks back. River's eyes are steady even as she watches the figure before her rise from the chair to bear down upon her. His face – is that his face? - blurring, her memory, her dream… a rising wind to whip the curtains, roll the upset glass, tug at her clothes, she is six, she is sixteen, she is – she is -

"I don't know - what you want..." River fights to remain lucid in the sudden gale of voices, impressions, memories and dreams blowing through and about her - with a force that draws her up, spins her about then throws her down again.

"Just the truth, child, just the truth - that's all I have ever sought - the truth."

He is on his knees before her now - his earnest voice matched by the clutching of his hands, pulling her fingers into his, pressing the palms together. Book's eyes are wild.

River looks straight into them, through them.

"Did you ever hear the truth before? All those faces, so many voices, so many..." River sounds anguished - she hears those voices, sees those faces, feels...

"Did anyone tell the truth - did they?"

"Some. Eventually" Book half whispers.

He can no longer hold the girl's gaze, can't look at her face - her face –

now rippling and twisting - barely resembles her at all, more like -

"Oh my son, how far you have fallen." The voice is not hers, a voice not meant to be heard again, its sorrow clutching at him now across the years.

"Stop that!"

Shocked, he has a hand up to strike and River leans back, offering her face, her smooth cheek, the pale skin ready for the blow.

A beat.

Book sags. "What - what have I done?" He stumbles backwards, confused, holding his hand out before him as if something foreign, an alien object, ugly. "This - isn't me... I don't... No more..." Gropes for the wall, but there's a new strength in his voice. "No – more," firmly now, resting his hot face against the cool of the wall.

"They've gone." Her voice, small and scared. "I can show you now."

This time, and meekly, he follows her.

...

Jayne reappears with a suddenness makes Noakes yelp, and Mal near swallow his tongue. For a big man, he moves lightly when he wants to.

"Reckon I know which way they've gone." he says.

"Thought you was gonna fix it?" Sarcasm is heavy.

"Oh, I got no problem talking to the Preacher." Jayne grins nastily back. "But someone's gonna hafta catch the li'l crazy, and I ain't going near her after that little knife stunt she pulled."

...

Another room, but larger, more impersonal. Stretching into the shaded distance, industrial shapes, but something age-old and practical in the lines of their design, tapering trapezoids of glass and metal, dulled with something might be age, might be frost.

This is a hollow place, swept clean by time, now. No ghosts to linger. Death had come on gentle feet.

Nobody has been out this far before. We didn't know, couldn't know...the silence. But...I dreamed a voice spoke to me out of the cold dark.

River knows this, how the dark hums and whispers with dreams that are not her own.

These cryogenic chambers bear little resemblance to the box that had moulded itself about her. Iron maiden, cold kiss of sleep-death in every chill embrace. Did they count electric sheep, these dreamers, as the needles took them?

The chill lets the night in, all the unbeing, creeps through the silver pathways into the veins, turns out the lights in the rooms of the memory palace. But memory's thorns snag in her flesh, fish on a line, drawing her further in...

My name is Legion, for I am become many...eat of my flesh, that you may live...there is no bread and wine here.

"They weren't given a choice." Fingers touch the coffin. "Held cold in their boxes, no brothers to save them."

Cold logic. In a world turned in upon itself, recycling air and water, nothing could be wasted, nothing was wasted, flesh merely another resource.

This then was the heart of darkness. Endless, empty toil. Service that held no purpose now but itself. Rooms kept clean, air filtered, engines repaired, a long journey into night carrying a cargo of memories. With a dancer's grace, River waves a hand across a wall mounted sensor. The lights come up.

And Book sees at last what has become of the crew of the Endeavour.

...

Some minutes later, Shepherd Book wipes the tears from his cheeks, presses the comm. switch.

"Captain? It's over - I'm... sorry."

"You done?"

"Hardly, captain. I'm just getting started."

"What? "

"But it's nothing you need be concerned about. I found my answers."

"Uh-huh."

"But...would you be kind enough to come down here to talk for a spell? I have something I would like to show you."

"I..."

But Mal is distracted as Jayne clicks the safety on his gun. His look of surprise is lost on Jayne, so instead he asks,

"You trust him?"

Jayne shrugs.

"Hell, I might trust him - but I ain't dumb."

...

Little scratch at the door, and Kaylee's face, pale and wan even without the emergency lighting.

"We can't do nothin' more." she says. "Can see the how of it, but Serenity, well, my girl, she just don't have the grunt." Manages a half-tired grin. "Wash ain't leaving it, though, he reckons he can tap something in the ship circuits."

"My man is nothing if not persistent."

"I guess I just..." Her eyes stray to the doctor. She can fix most anything broken, but not people. But the weight of eyes upon him causes him to stir.

Even the dim lights of Serenity's distorted med-bay are blinding to the weak and blinking eyes. But he sees…

I… can… see…

… a face.

"Rrrr-?" He tries to speak.

"Hey!" Kaylee's relief is heavy as an extra blanket – and Simon has been so very, very cold. He's shivering now.

"Welcome back...you ARE back right?" Kaylee looks over at Zoë for reassurance.

Zoë would have made a fine nurse in some ways, and her level gaze is the support Kaylee needs.

Simon is far from sure where BACK is… his own identity is a vague thing… memories are swampy – thick, hard to swallow.

"You want some water, huh?"

Thin trickle from a beaker. "Thank… you."

He's a little warmer now – and that smile from the girl who isn't his sister helps some. His sister… He remembers… River, hopscotch, dark hair a whirl in the grey skied backyard of Osiris – of home… no, not home. But she's beckoning – smiling… beckoning him back… home…

"Really thought you might've got away from me that time," a voice, her voice?

"I said – I'll never leave you – I swear…" His words are barely there, just a tremor of the lips.

But Kaylee's heard – hell she's been waitin' on the hearing so gorram long she's gonna miss it? Her own lips quivering, she leans down, leans in – to finally kiss the mouth been tormenting her these long low months. It's a pure need – and sweeter for that. Kaylee can kiss real gentle when she sets about it.

And Simon would know this – if he hadn't obeyed a different urge himself and passed out clean again. Kaylee gets wise to the fact she's kissing the comatose. With a groan she twists back from the bed, slaps her hips in frustration, turning on Zoë as if the woman has betrayed her somehow.

"It's alright, he's going to be fine." Zoë's reassurances fall flat. "He's sleeping now."

"Wang-ba dan duh biao-tze! Wake him up again!"

...

He had held no fixed notion of just what sort of personal wreckage he was going to find – but the man who waits for him in the doorway is the Book that Mal remembers; dark eyes full of secrets and sorrows, but clear, with a light of purpose. Gestures them in with one small motion.

"I...WE...found my answers, captain."

Mal, cautious, goes to step slow, and is elbowed by Noakes, swift and keen. Jayne holds Book eyeball to eyeball a moment, steps past. Halts, without even a cussword to say.

Read us the book of the names of the dead...where does the soul reside? Take apart a man, and you will not find its resting place. Render a man down to the constituent chemicals, you will not find that spark of the divine, and yet...

Whatever this space had once been, now it was...a cathedral, a temple, a shrine. Some trick of the failing gravity moved all sense of direction, leaving only a dislocation as the eyes tried to make sense of the troubling geometries that danced before them.

Spindles of the long bones blossomed from a crown of femurs. Spheres made from rib bones were orbited by moonlets of knuckle-bones, and from deep within each sphere, a reminder of mortality grinned mirthlessly.

A masque of death. We shall dance our last measure down through time.

What twisted semblance of the creator's art is this? We are translated, gone before, and what remains is...

All their voices whisper in the temple of bone, mark out the passing of time and stars in their courses. Remembrance of time past. memento mori...

Orrery and ossuary.

And stretched at its foot, in lone supplication, rags and shards, architect and worshipper.

Forgive us our sins, for we have trespassed into the realms of the unknown...

There is only time and darkness. Even the voices are stilled. The flesh was weak indeed; only spirit remains.

A sun. Nine planets and their moons. In this time, this place, it was history and myth.

There are no words left.

Mal had seen a deal of haunting sights, but the eerie grace of this machine was one that was gonna stay with him whether he wanted it to, or not.

"He looked into the abyss..." Book says softly.

"Did somethin' look back?" Jayne's sarcasm is refreshing, breaks the spell of that elegant horror.

"Well, I don't reckon this is something other folks need to be seeing." Mal says firmly. A mind functioning beyond madness, working to fulfil this design, the patient work of...how long? Dear Lord, how long had this one being laboured to create this? None of the twisted fervour of the Reavers in this. This was a monument.

"There's folks would pay good money for that installation." Noakes ventures, at last. "Rich Core folk, art collectors."

"A boneyard ain't art!" Surprisingly, it's Jayne.

Now, Jayne will rob the dead - hell, they don't need it no more - but he ain't selling 'em off. Kinda folks that keep bits of other folks around, well, that ain't right in the head.

Kinda folk that would build something like this...

"...And I who am here dissembled Proffer my deeds to oblivion...let the whiteness of bones atone to forgetfulness...as I am forgotten, And would be forgotten, so I would forget, Thus devoted, concentrated in purpose..." The voice is a mere thread of sound. But it is real and human.

River takes an uncertain step from the shadows.

"Dancing in the bone orchard. Strange fruit here, if you dare to reach for it." Shudder/flicker/memory blink of sunlit streets, empty, all empty, not time for this knowledge yet...

Time collapses about her, and she no longer knows how she comes to be here.

It's Mal who catches her as she falls.

...

"You're saying they ate their dead?"

"I don't think they were given a choice, Captain. The ship took them or saved them, according to their importance to the mission."

"We're in some gorram flying cannery, Mal!" Jayne eyes the walls like they might bite him. "Gonna end up sliced up and boiled down."

"You got to be in one of those boxes first." Mal snaps. Truth be told, he ain't cheered by the situation either. "You volunteerin'?"

"Hell, no." But Jayne quiets some.

"Prions." River says softly. (Small gloved hand is tight in Mal's, far side to anybody else. He don't blame her.)

"Say what?"

"Put the wrong things in people's bodies, wrong things in people's minds."

Jayne shrugs.

"Hell, if I woke up and found I'd bin eatin' people soup, reckon I'd go a bit feng le, too." Considers. "Mebbe not so far as this, mind."

Mal tabs his comm unit.

"You made any headway on freeing my boat?"

"Er, some..." Wash is frantically scoping the screens.

"That's not what I need to be hearing..." Ominous edge.

"Oh, we've hacked the system, Mal...it's just..."

"What?"

"It's hacking back!"

I sing the body electric...cognito ergo sum of the parts is greater than the whole...

The quicksilver surge arcs from screen to screen, jumps between consoles, seeks...

An approximation of humanity, learnt from observation, a distillation of data and experience, Turing's work painted in light. Piecemeal memory, an architecture of fractured data. The ghost in the machine.

Planes and angles come together, all shadows and pixellated fire.

"I am Endeavour." Strange harmonics, in a voice that had never issued from a human throat.