Characters: River and Cameron-centric, ensemble cameos
Timeline: Firefly, post Objects in Space, pre-Serenity, SCC, post series
Disclaimer: I own neither Firefly nor Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. There are some quotes from and references to Back to the Future, if you spot them please keep in mind that I don't own that either.
The bridge is disoriented. It's rolled sideways and forgotten that gravity here is its own creation so all of the occupants are suspended awkwardly, perpendicular, right angles made sinister, on the wall. A room always trips and stumbles and then catches itself when she walks in. Its analogy is a waitress who nearly drops a tray but steadies herself before the glass can smash on the ground. You're always are a bit let down when that happens because it would be a funny show but you'd feel a little bad too since you were the one who stuck your foot out and caught the waitress's ankle in the first place. That's how she feels when she walks in a room and it tips drunkenly at her appearance, all of its collected attention rapidly changing focus. The swing is nearly enough to knock her over, she who stuck her foot out in the first place.
The bridge is a fast learner though and it rights itself quickly. It is Wash's place and sometimes he can remember he's not solid, stolid, solitary and make space for her amongst his parts. Zoe and the Captain continue their conversation with Wash like they didn't notice her. They try to make her feel welcome by ignoring her. It's a good plan maybe. Eyes used to watch her move around a room even if they didn't want too. It made her feel dangerous. Now minds watch her, seeking her with heightened senses, blind with good intentions. It makes her feel like a ghost.
They leave and River is alone on the bridge. She runs her fingertips over the buttons and switches of Serenity's brain, not pushing or changing, just touching. She's always had sensation and if cold metal doesn't quite feel like sanity, at least it feels like continuity. She doesn't touch Wash's chair because she's an eavesdropper now not an interrogator and it would give up his secrets. But she thinks of the chair and he becomes the ghost, sliding behind her eyes, and they look out together into the black.
Everyone on the crew loves the stars. For Kaylee they're whistling-bright champagne kisses, proof that the 'verse is good. For Zoe they're the calm after the warm. To Simon they're terrifying comfort. Maybe we can get lost in such a sky. Jayne's stars started out as pinholes punched through to heaven that knew when winter was on the way but they have turned into uncles and cousins because family's the only thing he ever learned to love.
Before Inara had Serenity, the stars were the thing that was missing. They shined, uncomfortable spotlights, on her stage. They were so real and she thought she never knew what real meant before. When Inara found Serenity, found the black, she found the Captain and she thought she never what the stars meant before either. But now she's gone. No Captain. No stars. And every night, when she curtsies to the applause, she must push the rich-bright sky back up with her shoulders.
Captain feels the stars at his back like an apple felt the Earth. He loves them for the spaces between them that open like the spaces between words in a comfortable conversation. The black sings to him about freedom. Once, afraid, River woke Jayne in the middle of night to help her plug the captain's ears with wax and lash him to the ship but Jayne just growled and rolled over.
The Captain thinks there's nothing so free as a star. Inara frightened him terribly because when the Earth fell in love with the Sun it ended up in orbit and what the apple felt was gravity.
The stars are too big to belong to anyone else so each one thinks that he or she's the only one that loves. But Wash knows (not in words maybe but the words don't know either so it doesn't matter) how often things go backward. It was the stars that loved first, giving light and heat before there was anyone to need it. The stars waited for him, sad that he had to be born upon a planet. When he left home for good, his family thought that he, like so many young men, was chasing freedom. They smiled and laughed over metaphors of wild horses.
But Wash knows that the stars are the things for which freedom is a metaphor.
Metaphors. Metaphors. The human is the metaphor for gravity that fights always with entropy.
"What do you see out there?"
What'd you see in there?
The voice is a boy and a man and she thinks they're not one and the same but she's lost her own name for a moment and the now so she's not so sure. "Everything," she says and her voice is centuries old. "I saw everything."
Wash is in the chair. She knows that now. He never walked off the bridge with his wife and his Captain but he was so deep in the black that River didn't see him there in the chair, smiling. "I know what you mean," he says and he doesn't care that she got confused again and said, "saw." So she tries not to care that he knows what she means now but he wouldn't have known when she said it the first time. Acquisitive then. Inquisitive now. So easy to get mixed up.
"Time for more DeLorean," she says and Simon smiles, like they're sharing a joke, but his brain is ticking away behind it. He's remembering the letters she sent from the academy and how they frightened him.
"DeLorean? Is that an anagram? 'Renadol' only has one 'e.'" Once Simon would have understood but now she is out of context. "We'll try a little higher dosage tonight. I know the Renadol makes you a nauseated, it's a dense compound, heavy, but it seems to be working the best so far."
River lies back and offers up her arm. When she was a child she thinks she wasn't afraid of needles but now she knows better. "There's that word again: 'heavy,'" she says. "Why are things so heavy in the future? Is there a problem with the Earth's gravitational pull?"
Simon looks into her eyes for a moment like he still might find her there but he doesn't know what it is he's looking at and even her jokes worry him. He slips the needle into the port in her arm. The port is new, a metal mouth to make her feel more human.
Heavy. Her eyelids. Her head. Her bones. Heavy.
The needle approaching her eye is like once upon a time. But tonight DeLorean is telling the story so the needle flattens, broadens into a blade. A boy holds the knife and at first she thinks he is Simon because he is afraid to hurt her. But he is not Simon; she doesn't feel his fear in her stomach. She knows it only as a thing that will alter his actions from the course of logic. It is one more variable in an algorithm she is unwinding.
John. The boy's name is John. She can't believe she'd forgotten. He's the most important thing. Person. The one against all the zeroes. John brushes her hair back and presses the point of the knife through her scalp. She feels something and remembers that once she called it 'pain.' John hesitates. "This is not the first time you've done this," her mouth says without her help. Her body does a lot of things without her.
She tells him what to do and she smells her own blood. Its chemical signal resembles copper. It maintains the parts of her that someone might call 'alive,' the parts that are worth the least in the end.
John's fingers are around her chip. They are steady like fleshy foreshadows of needles yet to come. She defies physics. She was created so she can be destroyed. A quarter turn and she's gone.
"Did you sleep well, mei mei?" Simon asks. He's afraid that she didn't scream last night for his benefit.
River rubs her eyes and reaches for Simon's relief. She knows she shouldn't gobble up his feelings but DeLorean makes her greedy. "A boy reached inside my head and made me disappear." She touches her scalp and feels the thin edge of a scar. She traces it frantically, fingers clawed and trying to hold on to now. But it is just a line, a meridian, dividing her head into manageable segments. There is no circle.
Simon is already at her side, pulling her hands away so she can't scratch. She lets her wrists go slack in his grip. "It's OK Simon. I tr- he was my ally."
"So…" Simon's face wears his confusion, "it wasn't a nightmare?"
"No," she laughs. "Just a memory." Simon's fear smells like rotting fruit and bows his mouth. "I was not always like this you know."
Simon is nauseated. Simon is nauseous. River throws up.
Kaylee is chopping the onions they bought on York. She's put a slice of onion on her head to try to prevent tears. "Your eyes are crying," River says and thinks of an onion-bodied Simon. The laughter skips from her brain to her spine faster than she can follow it. The sparks of mirth roll across the synapses, tickling her organs like Simon's fingers tickled her stomach when she was a little girl. It does cartwheels across her ribcage and leapfrogs up her throat. Snort over giggle over gurgle over belly laugh. When it makes it to her mouth it hops over her teeth and swirls about the room like little Christmas elves. That's what humor feel like, squat little men dressed in stocking caps who are having a snowball fight with the enchanted creatures of the forest. She will remember the words in case she ever forgets the feeling again.
"Why're you laughing?" Kaylee says but she's already smiling and her laughs are starting their summersaults of sympathy. When Kaylee smiles, River knows she's happy. Not because a minute circuit somewhere supplies the word 'happy' to correspond with that particular change in blood flow and contraction of facial muscles but because River, too, feels happy. She's a real girl now and her brain can make the happy out carbon and electricity all on its own. If only she remembers to let it.
"I'm feeling what it's like to get away from it all," she says and Kaylee doesn't argue because this time it's true.
Tonight DeLorean tells the story of a girl who became a monster and then went back again. "It's a mind," he says from behind gown, gloves and mask because they've made her toxic.
"But not like any other," she replies before he can speak a lie. It doesn't matter. She's curious and they'll kindly hold the knife while she skins herself.
"It's the most sophisticated technology that's ever been recovered from Earth-That-Was," says another one, different from the first but not. Less drive than the first. Less zeal. More habit. "You came to this Academy to learn what you didn't know Miss Tam. This is your chance."
This is your chance. She doesn't speak because she only says their own words back to them now. Without reinforcement they must grow bored. It is human nature.
Their minds have been humming for weeks, making her teeth itch. They've been poking holes in her brain and now the metal mouse is here for the cheese. But these two are so full of primordial imaginings and creation stories that she keeps forgetting to be afraid. They long for Canaan and want her to be a girl made of prophecy and metal.
They think they've gotten smarter. These ones dream of Earth-That-Was so they stand by and dangle the carrot like she can be fooled into believing she's allowed to want it. The others are outside the walls, crossing their fingers over ones and zeroes that will lead her their way and change her into a thing made in their own images that cannot choose to eat from the tree.
Walls. Skulls. They're all the same. There all the same.
A switch is flicked and she knows who,what she used to be. And she laughs because even then she was like language breaking its own rules. And she cries because she sees everything.
Cameron protects a boy. It is John, colored the weight of Simon's destiny.
Cameron kills. She says, 'It's just a life. It doesn't mean what you think it means."
The boy loves Cameron. River colors love the pink of Kaylee's cheeks and the brown of Zoe's arms then adds the red of Inara's mouth because John can't have it either. And now Cameron understands it because River knows minds and they don't need a second soul.
Cameron follows the boy but not how they want her to follow. Sarah says, "Aren't you supposed to take orders or something like that?"
"I do, from John.
"From John, so if I tell John to forbid you…."
"Not this John."
"Not this John. Aren't they the same?"
DeLorean reaches back until the past and the then and the now meet at yet so River draws a pair of suspenders for John and colors his coat brown.
"This color is called 'Loyal.'"
"Thank you for explaining."
"Are we the same now?"
Cameron saves the world and lives long enough to see it deserted anyway. River watches and knows that when DeLorean is gone she will seek out a coloring box (the Captain maybe, though Book might be better) and select the crayons Futility and Despair to finish the memory.
Maybe the girl never went back again. Maybe now she is becoming the monster.
River lies on Serenity's cool skin. River can feel everything. It takes the edge off the hundred years of nothing, sap in a winter-dead tree. The others are sleeping now and Cameron is learning to feel dreams. All of them feel everything.
She thinks of the Captain and how Serenity loves him. She thinks of John. She smiles. She didn't know herself much at all back then. Maybe she wasn't so far from human.
She presses a finger to her own skin. Underneath is all the pressure of the bit of salt-sea underneath, the part of an ocean from Earth-That-Was that put on flesh and crawled to land but could never quite leave the sea behind. Her mind is living electrodes, a computer born, not made, but the only one big enough to remember what the flesh had forgotten. She feels as if she's swallowed a planet for safekeeping.
She wakes up at the table. Supper. Zoe cooked and the place where Inara is missing is called "elbow room." Some of the food is what food used to be because they just visited a planet named for Minerva, or Odin maybe. Someone who used to be allowed to explain the mysteries.
Zoe's chewing and thinking about tomato-fed babies. Wash is sitting near, agreeing that the food tastes like paradise. Kaylee and Simon drink their milk, blushing because it's sweet with honey.
The Captain is uneasy, trying to enjoy food that spent so much time under one sun. The sweet-milk might choke him. He's always been happier flying toward a land nobody promised him.
She understands. She's already watched Jerusalem die.
"It's not what you think," she says to the Captain. "It's just manna and quails."