SUMMARY: Mal has a lot of bad memories, and now, imprisoned, he's being forced to relive them. Even if his crew can rescue him, he's been damaged. Post the movie "Serenity"
WARNINGS: Torture, emotional trauma, PTSD-like affliction
NOTES: I've been working on this fic for some time. The first draft was kindly beta'd for me for by jane0904. Her suggestions for improvements were insightful and I knew it would be a far better story if I rewrote the fic with her comments in mind. Unfortunately I then left the fic sitting on my hard drive for many months. Then, when I signed up for an angst_bingo card challenge, the prompt 'Hallucinations' caught my eye and I remembered this fic, and have finally rewritten and polished it to the best of my ability. jane0904 has had no input into this second draft and any errors or shortcomings are completely my own.
Mal had been in prison before. In fact, Mal had been in lots of prisons, on a lot of different planets – and a number of spaceships, although they tended to prefer the term "brig".
He'd been in a gaol twice, a gaolle (thanks to an illiterate sign writer) once, jail many times and in plain prison more times than he could count. The worst was a toss-up between the week he'd spent in solitary in a military prison for insubordination and the four days incarcerated in the sheriff's office in a town that made the trenches of Serenity Valley look like a five star cabin on the Alliance's flagship cruiser Obedience.
Since this wasn't a starship there would certainly be rats, but Mal hadn't seen any yet, so that was a plus one right there. He didn't mind the creatures overly, except for when the critters were so hungry they'd chew on a man not yet dead. That was just plain bad manners.
And on the subject of hunger, he'd had plenty worse food. Here he got bread, cheese, cold water without any algae in it, and some kind of meat stew for an evening meal. It was better than some field rations.
This part of the planet got mighty cold when the sun went down though and he'd only got one blanket. So that was a minus but not a huge one. At least the heavy stone walls kept out the scorching noonday sun.
Oh, and the prisoners weren't expected to work outdoors in the sweltering heat either. Mal was certain when he'd been brought here that he'd be laying railroad tracks or digging for oil or mining for gems or some such for his troubles.
All in all, Mal thought, it could be worse. Except, of course, for the torture.
The simple fact was Mal was – against all odds – innocent. He'd been at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong kind of ID. Okay, yes, fake ID, hence the getting arrested. Yet he hadn't been meeting with "the most despicable drug dealer on the planet, Jake Erstone". He really hadn't. He had absolutely no desire to distribute EuPh1a to the local kids. He seriously didn't want them to get hooked on it, or die from sudden heart arrhythmias caused by the drug. He genuinely had never heard of Mr Erstone.
The local authorities saw it differently. Mal had been picked up, questioned, and transferred here without so much as being allowed to send a wave, let alone consult with counsel. Drug traffickers were not permitted lawyers. Especially ones who had probably supplied said despicable drug dealer Erstone with the party pills that had killed a councillor's teenage son.
So, until he told them Jake Erstone's whereabouts – something Mal obviously couldn't do – he would be tortured. Daily, ten am 'til noon, with a matinee from two pm 'til four.
Given how this was a rather backwater planet, Mal was impressed with the level of technological gadgetry the law enforcement agency possessed. He suspected it was on loan from a scientific research department who wanted the equipment tested somewhere quiet so that when something went horribly wrong (and no doubt it eventually would) it could be easily covered up.
Mal was no stranger to torture. He'd been punched, kicked, had his damn ear cut off even, been killed and revived, near drowned, given electric shocks, been deprived of food, sleep, and daylight. This, unfortunately, was entirely different.
Someone – Mal could never remember who – had said that mental torture was the finest torture of all. Physical torture was easy to do badly, leading to damaging the subject before they gave up anything useful, and was often unreliable. Mental torture on the other hand pressed buttons that physical torture could never find.
A man could survive physical torture and wear it as a badge of honour, but a man faced with mental torment that humiliated him, that made him question his own sanity; now that was torture indeed.
The device looked innocuous enough, right until the thin silver spike thrust its way into his skull. There was precious little physical pain, for which he was thankful – Mal vaguely remembered Simon once explaining that the brain itself had no pain receptors and so brain surgery could be carried out while the patient was fully awake if required.
Then the real assault began. Memories were dragged to the surface. Old memories, recent memories, it didn't matter. The only problem was that the device – with input from the device's operator – honed in somehow on only painful memories. They played out in perfect clarity – sights and sounds, odours and tastes, and even touch such as the satisfying cold metal of his gun in his hand, or the soft feel of Inara's dress as she brushed past him.
Yet it also recreated the sensations that he'd forgotten about.
People aren't supposed to remember pain. It's a survival mechanism. They of course remember that they had once been in pain, but not the actual sensations. It's not that they forget it either; it just fades into the background as unnecessary and unpleasant, locked away in the deep recesses of the subconscious.
The device however circumvented the mental blocks to these memories, making Mal relive the most painful experiences over and over again.
He fought the battle of Serenity Valley time and again. Despite the many horrors, Mal relived this battle often in his thoughts and was actually rather accustomed to certain aspects of it. Still, it was a different matter to re-experience it. And other memories were just as terrible, and some were even worse.
Mal spent a whole afternoon bleeding to death from a gunshot wound to his stomach while alone on his ship. (This was longer than the actual time he'd spent lying on the deserted Serenity, but the device had a way of twisting time.) He was going to die and he knew it. Except his crew would come for him, some part of him insisted. And with that came the remembrance that they had come back and they had saved him. It gave him the strength to push through the memory.
Niska's torture, from the electric shocks to the removing of Mal's ear; that was a nasty memory. They came for you, his consciousness said again, reminding him of the resolution to that terrible time. Zoe saved you.
The cold steel of the Operative's sword through his gut was another favourite memory for the device's operator. I broadcast the signal, Mal thought. I did what I came to do. I survived. He'd almost been ready to lay down and die after that but the thought of his crew kept him upright and forced him to rejoin them. This was different, of course. As when he was captured by Niska, he now needed them more than they needed him.
Mal hadn't realised until the third session just how often he'd been injured. Maybe in future he'd be a mite more careful. If he survived, that was.
You can't die from remembered pain, he told himself sharply. It didn't kill you then and it won't now.
Yet worse than the pain was reliving the emotional horrors he'd faced. Men and women he'd served with, gotten to know over days, months or even years, killed in front of him. Seeing their mutilated corpses on the battlefield and not even being able to give them a decent burial.
Feeling the anguish of knowing the Independents had surrendered to the Alliance.
Facing the sickening moment that Wash was impaled on the bridge of Serenity.
Mal had seen men broken by the horrors they'd witnessed; seen soldiers shoot themselves rather than live with the guilt and terror any longer; seen people with no light in their eyes after they'd suffered a loss too devastating to bear, empty shells as if they were the living dead; seen fever bright expressions of the touched who'd lost all touch with sanity. A man could lose himself, his compassion, his heart, his soul -
Did he even believe in such a thing anymore? A soul? Maybe. Maybe it wasn't important. All that was important was that he survived, physically, emotionally, until he was rescued. I've been through worse, he thought.
It was a lie.
Everything he'd been through had been experienced in a linear. It had happened, it hurt, it was tragic, he moved on. The war ended, his flesh healed, his grief paled. But not here. Here it all happened at once, repeating constantly and in random sequences so he could never prepare himself for the trauma. There was no end in sight, no chance to recover.
"Tell us the whereabouts of Jake Erstone," the officer asked before and after every session.
"I can't tell you what I don't know," Mal repeated over and over, to no avail.
"You're in my head," he protested. "Can't you see that I'm innocent?"
Apparently they couldn't, because they just asked him some more questions he couldn't answer and then either tortured him again or, if this interrogation took place after such a session, took him back to his cell.
Each night he ate quickly and then sat up against the wall near the far corner from the door, huddled up in his blanket. Lying down made him feel too vulnerable, and colder, and besides, it reminded him of the reclined position of the couch they strapped him to every day.
He missed the sound of Serenity's engines, the smell of Inara's perfume, the weight of his pistol on his hip. Here it was near silent but for occasional orders shouted in the corridors, and it smelt of damp.
"They'll come," Mal said to the night air and to the rodents he sometimes heard skittering about. "They'll come for me. They always do."
Usually he was so exhausted he fell asleep almost immediately. Yet even his dreams were haunted by the images he'd been forced to relive that day, and he always woke feeling wretched and terribly alone.
His faith in his crew was a lifeline that he clung to against the onslaught of remembered terror continued, day after day. Zoë would come, even if she had to beat Jayne senseless to get him to agree to a rescue. Simon would take Kaylee's side as she too insisted they rescue him. Inara had been away on Companion business when he'd left Serenity, but River was still onboard and woe betide anyone who stood between the little albatross and what she wanted.
River had saved his life more than once; she'd gotten mostly sane after Miranda and become not only his pilot, but his backup plan. Zoë was constantly at his right, and Jayne somewhere he could keep an eye on the man, but River was always around, keeping watch. She was a psychic; no-one could lie to her. With her skills, Zoë's smarts and determination, Simon's intellect and persuasive powers, Jayne's sheer bullheadedness, and Kaylee's ingenuity, they'd be able to find him.
The one memory he wouldn't have been able to withstand was of being abandoned by his crew, but it was the one memory he didn't have, and the one blessing was that the machine couldn't manufacture nightmares, only recall them.
Nevertheless the situation took its toll on him. It became as so he couldn't keep track of the days anymore. Day and night began to blend into one another, not that it mattered. He thought the rats were only audible at night but hell, he'd still never laid eyes on them, not even when he'd been unable to finish his food and left it putrefying in the corner of the tiny room. Maybe he was just imaging the critters. Maybe he wasn't really planetside but had been taken to an Alliance vessel and even this cell was illusory. Who knew what was real, anyway, what was memory and what was happening right now; it was all the same in the end. Re-live traumas, eat, sleep, dream traumas, eat, start over.
Mal blinked. Zoë stood in front of him with what might have been concern on her face. With Zoë it was hard to tell. She was remarkably stoic. He liked that about her.
"I know, Tierney's dead," he said, before she could inform him of the grim news. He hated enduring that memory, hated losing the young (so desperately young) infantryman.
"Sir?" Zoë said again. She might have been puzzled. Again it was hard to tell. It was also the wrong line from the oft-repeated script. She was supposed to say, "Tierney's dead, Sir," wait for his anguish to show and then add, "At least it was quick." Decapitation wasn't pretty but he had to agree that at least it wasn't a drawn out death.
Mal looked around the cell – yes, the stone walls, not the trenches. This was different, Zoë being here in the cell with him. Couldn't be a memory, must be a dream.
"Can you stand?" Zoë asked. He nodded and got slowly, stiffly, to his feet. No exercise but walking to and from that damn torture chamber had seized up his muscles. Wait, was this a dream or not?
"Let's go," Zoë said. "Jayne and Simon are waiting. You've been cleared of all charges."
"I knew you'd come," Mal mumbled, grateful for Zoë's strong arm under his armpit. Her broad shoulders supported his weight while Simon followed close by. Jayne, walking to the rear with many wary glances over his shoulder, kept a casual hand near his pistol the whole way back to Serenity but there was no trouble.
"Of course we were coming," Zoë told him. "I'm sorry it took so long, sir."
"The government was being particularly obtuse," Simon explained. "It took Inara waving them from her job on Highgate to get anywhere. Luckily one of the councillors is a regular client of a Companion Inara trained with. That was enough of an in for us to talk to the people with power. Convince them you weren't a drug dealer."
"Not today," Mal replied, wanting to be scrupulously honest.
The moment they were safely onboard River took Serenity up into the black, hit the throttle, and didn't slow until they were several sectors away.
Simon fussed over the few scrapes and bruises Mal had acquired. He was equal parts fascinated and appalled when Mal tried to explain about the damn machine. The entry point from the device would heal, Simon reassured him, though he wanted to get a proper scan next time they were at a decent medical facility.
Mal just nodded and said he wanted to sleep.
"Memories," Simon said, not ready to let it go. "Re-living the most horrific experiences over and over. That must have been terrible."
"Pretty much," Mal said shortly and that was all Simon was going to get out of him.
He woke, short of breath, and damp-eyed. The recollections the device had stirred up wouldn't be quelled just by distance from the torturous machine.
"They hurt you," River said from the darkness. Mal started at her voice. He strained to see her, a delicate figure by the ladder down to his cabin.
"Who's flying the ship?" Mal asked automatically.
"We're on automatic pilot. You know that." River padded noiselessly to his side. She cocked her head, her expression serious. "They made you remember."
Mal nodded. He'd tried to brush off Simon's concerns but River wouldn't be easily fooled or dissuaded. Likely she'd heard his nightmares from the pilot's chair and come to wake him.
"Yes," River responded, which always unnerved him, her answering his unspoken questions or confirming his unvoiced statements. She knew it unsettled him so she usually kept this behaviour to a minimum. "You were screaming."
At his look of horror, she added, "In your mind. I could hear."
"Sorry," Mal said automatically.
"No need to be. I can help." River gestured for him to move over and seated herself on his pillow.
"If Simon catches you here he'll try to kill me," Mal protested. "And then I'll have to stop him and it'll get messy."
"Don't dissemble." River curled herself up on the bed and guided him to lie in her lap. Mal stiffened in protest but her touch was gentle.
"It's all right," she said. "Let me help."
Mal tried to shake his head. "I think I'm broken, little one," he confessed, hating that his voice caught as he admitted it. Yet she already knew what he was feeling and in an odd way it almost comforted him to admit it, though he'd never voice this fear to any of the others.
"Yes. But only a little," River soothed, stroking his hair. "Sleep."
Maybe it was her doing, maybe just exhaustion, but Mal drifted off quickly.
He was trapped in a trench in Serenity Valley, explosions all around him, gunfire ringing out. Yet there was River, dressed in a white gown, barefoot, ethereal.
"Zoë is coming to help," she said. "And I'm here." She reached out, and Mal found himself stretching out his hand and grasping her tiny fingers…
The grille of the deck was cold and hard beneath his cheek. He could feel his lifeblood draining from the wound in his belly.
"We're coming back," River whispered, kneeling next to him. "You know that. This is what kept you sane while they tortured you. We always come back. And I'm here now."
He felt her delicate touch on the back of his neck and the pain stopped.
When he was faced with seeing Wash impaled by the Reaver ship's harpoon, River caught his chin in her hand and made him look down into her deep brown eyes. "We have a job to do," she reminded him. "Come."
They revisited every traumatic memory Mal had been forced to experience by the device. Finally, Mal was back in the prison cell, alone but for the invisible rats that he could hear skittering around, and awaiting the next torture session.
"They'll come for me," he said.
"I'm already here," said River; she was sat cross legged opposite him. He couldn't hear the rats anymore.
"We always come," she said. Once more he took her hand and the scene faded.
Finally Mal slept, soundly, dreamlessly. River stayed there the rest of the night, stroking his hair, repairing the damage to his psyche as best she could, diverting his thoughts and closing the doors on the remembered pain.
Serenity Valley was a difficult memory. It was huge and ugly, a harsh and jagged nightmare of steel and torn flesh that would never go away – and she would never attempt to make it do so. It was so much a part of Mal that it could destroy him if she tampered with it. Still, where the edges were newly raw and bleeding, she allowed a fog of haziness to descend to obscure the anguish.
She'd been broken and she was fixed – not the same as she was before, but mended - and it was as much Mal's doing as Simon's that she was whole again. She would never let him suffer if she could help it. She remembered how he'd rescued her from the superstitious idiots on Jiangyin who wanted to burn her as a witch.
"She's our witch," he'd quipped and took her and Simon to safety.
River smiled in the darkness. She liked being his witch, with the power to hurt or to heal. She liked being able to fix what was broken; it was her gift, one gained through her own ordeals, and something that made her own trials more bearable, even , on some level, worthwhile.
She slipped away just before he was due to wake, and was eating cereal with the other crew members when Mal finally stumbled into the dining area.
"Morning, Captain," Kaylee said brightly and stood. "I can get you some food, if you'd like."
"I can manage," Mal said, but not unkindly. River could feel his prickliness at knowing they were watching him. Well, she and Simon, and Zoë and Kaylee. Jayne was too busy shovelling food into his mouth and thinking about oiling Vera.
Mal seated himself with his own bowl of food and busied himself eating.
"Captain," Kaylee began softly.
"We flying about for fun or we got us a job to do?" Mal asked. "Seeing as my last excursion went sour."
Kaylee faltered, looked at the table.
"I hear there's a cargo of plant material needs taking to Severance," Zoë offered. "We're close enough to get in on the contract if you'd like."
Mal nodded and swallowed. "Good," he said. "Plants are nice. Green and not prone to odour or sudden explosions like some of our other cargoes."
Kaylee nodded. "Plants are pretty," she said.
"Most likely foodstuffs," Mal said. "And they always allow five or ten per cent extra for spoilage so we can dip into that, be enjoying something of a more varied diet for a week or so."
Kaylee smiled at that. "Do you think it might be strawberries?" she asked.
"Maybe," Mal said indulgently and his engineer grinned.
"And then," Kaylee said to Simon over her shoulder as she reached the door, "we just need some more whipped cream."
Mal winced. "You know how I feel about that sort of talk at the breakfast table. Or any table I'm at."
Simon, embarrassed, nodded. "Sorry," he said and River suppressed a giggle that he was the one apologising for Kaylee's remark.
"I'll let them know we'll take the job," Zoë said and headed off to the cockpit. River knew that Zoë sometimes liked to sit in the pilot's chair awhile, and play with the dinosaurs and think about Wash, so she stayed put for a while. She could adjust course in a few minutes, no problem.
Jayne belched loudly. "Tell me when you need some muscle," he offered and wandered off to his quarters.
Simon stood and began to clear the table. "Mal," he began.
"I'm fine." Mal pushed his dish aside.
Simon glanced at River, wondering if Mal would open up more if she weren't there, but Mal saw the gesture and shook his head. "No point asking her to leave," he pointed out. "Your sister knows everything goes on in this boat whether she wants to or not."
River chose to conceal the fact that she was getting much better at blocking out what she didn't want to hear, and merely pulled her knees up to her chin, balancing her bare feet on the edge of the chair.
"If you want to talk about it," Simon said.
"You know me better than that," Mal told him. Simon nodded but he was, River thought, feeling somewhat helpless. "Go. I'll finish clearing up."
Simon left and Mal did indeed finish moving the dirty plates, dishes, cups, glasses and assorted cutlery from the table – accompanied by a string of Chinese obscenities when he got greasy from Jayne's plate. How, Mal wondered aloud, did someone get butter underneath their plate?
River watched as Mal wiped the table with a damp cloth.
"He worries about you," she said.
"Yes." She didn't pry into his thoughts, just tasted the feelings. He wasn't angry or upset about this comment so she pushed a bit harder. "He thinks you're disturbed."
Mal tossed the cloth into the sink. "He's been thinking that since the day I met him," he said.
River smiled at that. "Differently disturbed," she clarified. The smile left her lips as she said, "He wants to make sure you're not damaged."
She let an image rise in her mind, a hand holding a gun, the barrel pressed to the side of the head. She wasn't good at planting images yet but she'd been so recently in close mental contact with Mal, and he was already guessing what she was alluding to, that the gist of it got through.
"I'm a survivor," Mal said stiffly, and she felt a swell of anger from him, directed at Simon for thinking Mal might quit like that after everything else he'd been through.
"I know." River put her feet to the floor and enjoyed the sensation of the engine humming through the floor. Time to go and urge Serenity in her new direction. "I'll tell Simon you're not broken. He'll listen to me."
She got to the doorway when Mal spoke again. "Little one." She paused.
The words were coloured by genuine feelings of gratitude for the comfort she'd given him, along with residual anger and hurt over the experience in the jail, and tiny, barely acknowledged, fears that he might have been pushed over the edge if not for his crew's speedy rescue and River's mental healing.
"You're welcome," River said softly.
She wanted to add, "You're family", though knowing it would just embarrass him to hear her say it. But being River she said it anyway, then skipped out of the galley with a smile on her face. And while Mal might have been blushing, there was a smile on his face too.