Disclaimer: This is a derivative work of fiction solely intended for private use and entertainment. The author does not profit or benefit materially in any way from its publishing and distribution and, as such, believes the work constitutes fair use under the Fair Use doctrine of U.S. copyright law. All copyrights in the original work are retained by the original authors/owners.
A/N: This story is meant to be a direct sequel to the movie Serenity. It was originally written and posted over six weeks in July and August of 2010. Since then, I've edited and re-worked it, re-posting it chapter by chapter once again. Although some scenes and chapters were added or rewritten, nothing about the plot was substantially changed, so for those who read it the first time it will still be familiar. This story has always had a "soundtrack" made up of songs that inspired me as I wrote it. The "§" symbol followed by a number at specific points in the story marks the place where each song fits in and gives its information as a footnote at the end of the chapter. I encourage you to listen along if you like. Copy and paste this link after Youtube dot com to reach the playlist I created for this story: /playlist?list=PLN3aaAPoPqw8_4I5W0AGx400j_hErRsbI (note that I did not create any of these videos, just organized them into a playlist). An unbelievable amount of thanks goes to all of those who reviewed the original versions. Your comments and encouragement kept me from abandoning this and my other projects altogether. To new readers, please enjoy and leave a review to tell me what you think.
§1. "In Parliament, the special committee charged with investigating the anonymous 'Miranda wave' held its first hearings today. According to the official military report released shortly after the incident, the broadcast was initiated by a large band of pirates who had taken control of a satellite in Comm Station Ring 2. Those same pirates also ambushed an Alliance battlegroup deployed to investigate the situation. Nearly three hundred Alliance servicemen and women lost their lives in the attack, the most military casualties since the War. Nearly four months later, the broadwave continues to generate controversy and has caused a sharp divide in Parliament. Many representatives from the Core and neighboring Border systems opposed the creation of the committee, calling it redundant and a waste of taxpayers' money. In a joint statement, opponents of the committee said that, '…allowing this investigation to continue dishonors the sacrifices of those soldiers who died in the battle by giving validity to the outrageous assertions made by the criminals who cowardly attacked them.'
"However, representatives from several of the largest planets in the Georgia and Blue Sun systems remain distrustful of the military's account and have given their backing to the inquiry. Committee chair Jansen Locherbie of Boros has been one of the most outspoken critics, repeatedly stating his dissatisfaction with the military's findings and calling for an evaluation of the claims made in the wave. Among those is the implication that the government conducted secret experiments on the population of the planet Miranda, resulting in the deaths of millions of settlers. Also, some contend that the wave is proof of the existence of Reavers, a violent group of outlaws who have been raiding settlements on the Border and Rim for the past few years. This has led to increasing tensions between the central government and citizens on some Border and Rim worlds, many of whom have long been asking for more protection against such raids.
"Due to the groundswell of popular support in the outer systems, Chairperson Kwan allowed for the formation of the committee despite his personal opposition. As a result, he has taken criticism by some members of Parliament for being too easily manipulated by public opinion. In response, Kwan stated that he has absolute confidence in the military's report and that he believes the investigation will only confirm that the wave was a hoax, but he will not stand in the way of the will of the people to carry it out. However, Kwan refused the push by some represntatives for an exploratory mission to Miranda as part of the investigation. Although he admitted that the failure of terraforming on Miranda had led to the deaths of some of the terraforming crew, he said that no incident on the scale suggested by the wave had ever occurred, and that due to the danger, the world would remain closed to all but the military and authorized Alliance personnel. This is Stefanie Kurtwin with your hourly Newsfeed update."
"The storm's getting worse."
"We'll pass through it soon enough."
Some things you can never leave behind…
§2. River rushed through the shadows blackening the street. The night was already deep, but the torrential rain made it even darker. Soaked to the bone, she clung to Simon as he led her through the gloom, skirting along the façade of one of the buildings. They ducked into the mouth of an alley and halted, both breathing desperately. In the downpour, the streetlamp across the way provided not so much light as just a weaker shade of darkness. Even so, the ambient glow was enough for anyone following to spot them. Simon pressed his back against the wall, one hand holding River against it as well. She sheltered behind her brother as he peered around the corner, his dread choking her with its thickness as he listened for their pursuers. Voices reached her ears, echo-y and indistinct, muffled by the rain.
"I hear them! I hear them coming!" she pawed at Simon's arm, panicked.
"Shhh," he soothed, taking both her hands in a firm but gentle grasp. "No they're not. There's no one out there. I think we lost them." The voices faded into the storm. Had they been real? She could not be sure. Everything was chaotic. Was she really even here, standing in the rain with her brother, or was that an illusion as well? She raised her face to the clouds, the droplets slapping her cheeks, and closed her eyes. It felt real enough. Soaking wet, for a moment she was able to let go of everything and revel in the fact that she was outside the walls that had been her prison. The hope, held out for so long… She soared on it.
But it was only for an instant. Then the darkness dragged her back. A tremor ran through her that was more than just a physical chill. Her eyes darted around the alley, trying to perceive the invisible beings that were most certainly out there and waiting to take her back to that horror. She felt them crawling over her scalp like lice, digging into her skull. It was just a matter of time before they got a grip on her.
"Just a matter of time. They go in and they cut. They drain you dry, and they replace it with… with…" She could not enumerate the thought. Lightning ignited the clouds and thunder rolled overhead. She jumped.
"It's okay mei mei," Simon assured her. "Let me check again to make sure it's safe, and then we'll get out of this rain." In the murk she could just make out his forced smile, but it did nothing to cover the fear that still gripped them both. Reluctantly, she let go of his hands while he leaned around the corner for another glance down the street. She wrapped her arms around her, her eyes dancing about the rain-darkened alley. Though she could see nothing, she knew they were out there, hunting for her. An actinic flash illuminated the alley again, throwing disproportionate shadows around. One of them caught her attention, a silhouette that was at once familiar. She squinted at it through the black, uncertain if it was real or another one of her mind's tricks. Another flicker, and she saw it again, no mistake. She took a few steps towards it, her fear slipping away for a moment.
"River?" she heard Simon's voice search for her when he realized she was no longer beside him. She did not answer, though, so engrossed was she with the object that had caught her eye. "River?" Simon called more loudly. She heard his feet splashing about and he stumbled into her where she had crouched down over the puddled ground. "River, come on. We have to go now," he urged, taking her arm.
"There's a flower," she said.
"There's a flower. Right there," she pointed to the ground. Simon peered down.
"What are you talking about?" Another violet bolt cracked the sky, throwing into relief the outline of the small blossom sprouting through a fissure in the pavement.
"Centaurea cyanus. Young man in love," she said with a child's simple pleasure, delighting in its existence.
"Let's go." Simon took her arm again and stood her up. He started to lead her deeper into the alley. She threw a longing look back at the little flower until it disappeared into the rain. Somehow, against all natural odds, it had managed to find a foothold in the concrete desert of the alley and survive, which made it not unlike her. She, too, had miraculously found a way to survive the hell of the Academy until Simon had gotten her out. But though she was physically free from it now, she knew escape was not that easy. If she could just find her foothold… Memories welled up in her unbidden. Some she recognized, although they seemed from a different lifetime, and some she was sure were not her own but were there all the same. They came all at once in a jumble, rushing through her mind like a storm of their own, bringing with them a thousand different feelings that overwhelmed her senses. She shivered, feeling suddenly sick, her exposed skin now numb from the cold. Everything was growing darker as the storm pounded down with renewed viciousness. The rain had turned into a deafening roar between the alley's narrow walls, a curtain so dense that she could not even see her brother just an arm's length in front of her.
"Simon, I can't see." she called ahead, straining to make out his form. Some unseen hazard caught her foot and she stumbled. Simon's fingers were torn from her arm, as if the storm had just swallowed him. "Simon?" she called, skidding to a halt. "Simon?" Her fear intensifying, she reached out for him, flailing through the darkness, but found nothing, not even the walls of the alley. "Simon! Where are you?" She whirled in a circle, unable to make out anything anymore. The roar of the storm surrounded her now, and not just outside but within as well, a pressure beneath her skull. Lost in the absolute darkness, she felt like the world was spinning around, trapping her in a whirling black vortex of nothingness. "Simon!" she cried out, terror breaking over her like an ocean wave. "Simon!"
"Simon!" River shot upright with a shriek. Instinctively she curled herself into a ball against the wall. Her terrified eyes swept around while she cowered behind the covers. The room around her was insubstantial, like a mirage. It blurred at the edges of her vision, darkness seeping into the cracks and corners. Something malevolent stirred behind it. She did not want to know what it was. Please go away, please go away, please, please, please… she begged. She gripped the covers with quaking hands. It took a few more passes for her eyes to register that she was in her quarters on board Serenity, and her terror finally began to diminish. Her head throbbed, making her dizzy, and she rubbed one hand over her face, wiping the unshed tears away in the process. It was another nightmare, and then some. They were coming again, just like before Miranda. She pounded her fist into the mattress in frustration and then dropped her head onto her knees. I'm going back.
After sitting for a few minutes to allow her fear to completely abate and to re-gather her fractured control, she glanced up at the timepiece on her com station. It was only twenty minutes until she had to be up for watch duty, which was just as well. She would get no more sleep tonight. Flinging back the covers, she tugged off her night shift and rummaged for some clothes. She pulled out a pale pink dress that was so faded as to be almost white, and a tattered and frayed red sweater. Her thoughts dwelt on the nightmare while she dressed. Was it just a dream, or was it a memory of something that really happened? It was still hard to tell, especially since everything before she came to Serenity was so dark and hazy, like looking through smoked glass. But she needed to know if it was real or not. It was important that she be able to tell the difference. Squeezing her eyes shut, she focused on recreating the images as best she could remember. It was so dark and rainy that she could not recognize any of the buildings. They could have been on any number of worlds, and she had no clue how many she and Simon had traveled through before her brother smuggled her onto Serenity. The flower stood out the most in her mind. She recognized it as a cornflower, her favorite. Plantae, Magnoliophyta, Magnolipsida, Asterales, Asteraceae, Centaurea, cyanus, she automatically recited its biological classification. She had memorized it by the time she was four, it's presence gave her little clue as to whether or not the event was a remembrance of something real or just a dream. She still could not be sure. It made no sense that her brain could recall such a trivial thing from her childhood, yet she could hardly remember what happened just a year or two ago. She bit her lip in frustration, her eyes watering with the pain. At least that was real.
Realizing she was getting nowhere with her memory, she shoved the nightmare out of her mind and headed for the ladder. Barefoot, she climbed from her quarters into the foredeck hall. Now that she was officially Serenity's pilot, the captain had allowed her to move into the unused cabin next to the rest of the crew. Simon had objected to it, but she had welcomed the increased privacy it afforded her compared to the passenger cabin that had served as her room ever since she had first arrived. Tonight, she was extra glad for that privacy. Simon's room was still in the passenger dorm, and her shouts would have woken him had she still been sleeping there. She was not in a state of mind to deal with his unavoidable questions. As her condition improved, he had weaned her off the meds, except for the occasional dose of something to help her sleep. His vigilance was down to an extent as well, thanks in part to his blossoming relationship with Kaylee. But if he knew she was having a relapse, he would have her back on a new regimen in no time. She grimaced at the thought. She hated the meds. They numbed her emotionally, which was sometimes a relief, but they often made her physically ill as well.
The cold and sharp edges of the corrugated metal stair dug into her soles as she climbed up to the bridge from the foredeck. She did not mind. Going barefoot grounded her, literally and figuratively, and she needed that tonight more than usual. She stepped over the bulkhead and moved so silently across the bridge that the captain did not even notice she was there until she was standing right next to him.
"Oh. Evenin' lil' albatross," Mal greeted her from his perch at the helm. She did not answer him, staring out at the stars through the main viewport. She felt rather than saw his expression shift to mild concern as he regarded her.
"I'm fine," she answered his question before he could ask it.
"You look a mite peaky s' all. How'd you sleep?"
"Fine." The word was edged with razor wire.
"Okaaay," Mal raised his palms in defense. "No call for rudeness. Captain's gotta know all his crew's in order. It's my job, you know."
"I know," River softened her tone, feeling a little guilty that she had snapped at him. The nightmare had her more on edge than she realized. She made a concerted attempt to will some calm through her. Mal rose from the helm and she slipped into his place in the chair.
"At least you're adaptin' to the watch cycle. We're still on schedule for arrival at Paquin. Should be there by morning. Anything happens… well, you know the drill by now," he said with a little smile.
"I do," she intoned quietly.
"Shiny." Mal yawned hugely and stretched. "Well, g'night." He ambled down the stairs. River heard his bunk open, footfalls on the ladder, and then the metallic thunk as it closed behind him. She was alone on the bridge.
Like all vessels in space, Serenity kept a standard 24 hour clock with one crew member always on watch. Mal had divided the schedule into three equal eight hour shifts amongst River, Zoe, and himself. Zoe took the first shift in the morning and Mal the second. River was assigned the third mostly because there were fewer distractions for her when everyone was asleep. She still struggled to control her ability, and it was stressful trying to keep even the simplest thoughts and feelings from invading her mind. Third watch allowed her a respite from that. Still, she was human, and the night shift was undoubtedly lonely. She countered it by spending time on the Cortex or with Simon's Encyclopedia, absorbing as much information as her ravenous brain could. She had resumed her study of astrophysics and found it a comfort. The numbers and science were logical, unchangeable, and undeniably real. It allowed her to forget much of what was always lurking just on the edge of her consciousness. She had even impressed the captain by recalculating their course to shave almost a day off their ETA at Paquin.
"The nav computer takes into account the orbital distance our destination moves over the time we're traveling, estimates a trajectory, and calculates a burn time based on predicted particle and gravitational drag coefficients," River had explained to him.
"I know how a nav computer works," Mal had lied. "So?"
"It's only programmed to recognize up to eight decimal places and truncates all values thereafter. So I recalculated our course using sixteen decimals."
"Doubling the precision increases the accuracy of our trajectory by just over one percent."
"Which means what, exactly?" Mal asked after a beat, frowning slightly.
"Instead of arriving in 59 days, 9 hours, and 36 minutes, we'll arrive in 58 days, 19 hours, and 12 minutes," she interpreted for him. She sensed his regard for her growing as he heard that, although he kept it from showing on his expression. Instead, he raised a skeptical eyebrow at her.
"And how did you figure all that out? In your head?" he asked.
"No," she responded without a trace of hubris. "I had to check my solutions." She handed him a tablet, and Mal stared at the incomprehensible formulas she had traced out on it. He handed it back to her, rubbing his head.
"Fine. Go ahead and punch it in. But your mathematical geniusness better not make me regret it by bouncin' us into an asteroid or some such."
"Highly improbable," she had replied with all seriousness and started entering the course on the keyboard. The captain's awkward approval had really meant something to her, though. It was the first time since Simon had snuck her aboard that she actually felt useful, instead of just a burden or worse. She had been a part of the crew and Serenity's pilot for almost three months now. Even so, she sensed a lingering remnant of distrust from the others. They were probably not even conscious of it, but she could tell. It was unavoidable, and she could not blame them for it. How could they trust her completely without really knowing if what the Academy had done to her was still there? For that matter, how could she know? Yet, despite all of that she had been welcomed as family aboard the ship. But now the nightmares were starting again. She did not know what that meant, but she did not want to admit that maybe the lingering fears and doubts might be justified.
Turning her attention to the controls, she double-checked the course on the nav screen and then ran through the other displays to ensure Serenity's systems were all in line. Going through these routine procedures steadied her. It helped relieve the chaos of the nightmare to do something as simple and normal as running systems checks. When she reached the engine power output display, she paused, creasing her brow slightly. The level was not as steady as it should have been. That was a trend she had noticed in just the past day or so. She would have to remember to tell Kaylee to look into it in the morning. In the meantime, she would run a diagnostic and see if the computer could detect any sort of problem. Her stomach chose that moment to vociferously remind her that she had not eaten anything since mid-afternoon yesterday. Patting her midsection, she set the program to run and then swung out of the helm and plodded off the bridge to find something to eat. In the galley, she went straight for the cubby containing the protein bars. She selected one at random since they all tasted the same, regardless of what "flavor" they were supposed to be, and tore it open. Dropping the wrapper in the recycler, she stood by the table and munched absently on the featureless substance. As unappetizing as it might be, she recognized that the bars were the most efficient method of providing balanced nutrition in space. Still, as much as she could appreciate their function, it did not stop her taste buds from occasionally clamoring for something with real savour.
Finishing her snack, she turned to head back to the bridge when a sudden moment of disorientation struck her. She wobbled, pressing a hand to her temple while her head swam and her vision blurred. When she could see straight again, the familiar hues of the dining area were gone. Everything was washed out, overexposed in shades of blue. Blinking to try and restore the color to normality, she leaned on the table to steady herself. Something surprisingly warm and sticky squelched between fingers. Looking down, she saw her hands were smeared with what looked like chocolate sauce. That did not make sense. Where had it come from? The liquid dripped from her fingers and ran in rivulets down her arms. The tabletop was also covered with it. Looking around for some explanation, she realized with shock that her clothes were gone. Instead of her dress and sweater, she was clad in a plain hospital gown now. It, too, was streaked with dark stains. Confused, she backed away from the table, staring at herself. That was when she tripped and tumbled to the floor. It took a few seconds for her to recover from the fall before her mind registered what she had stumbled over. Then horror tore apart her thoughts. The body was face-down, so she could not identify who it was other than it was male. He was wearing a lab coat and a pool of chocolate-y brown oozed from around his head and chest. Obviously, he was dead. Shaking in terror she scrambled away from the corpse, backing up against the wall. Her breath came in rapid gasps. She could not tear her eyes away. A familiar, tangy odor flooded into her nostrils, turning the recent meal her stomach. After staring for a few more horrible seconds, she screamed.
As her second scream rang down the corridors of Serenity, Mal stumbled into the dining area, shirtless but still in his trousers.
"What the hell's goin' on?" he shouted, leaping down the small set of steps. "River?" he whirled around and found her crouched against the cabinets next to the bulkhead, her arms shielding her face. He knelt in front of her, pulling her arms down. "What is it? What happened?" She was shaking too violently to answer him.
"What's goin' on?" Zoe appeared in the doorway next, also just barely dressed.
"Go get the Doc," Mal ordered her. The first mate hesitated a moment, a small frown fixed on River, and then she darted toward the forward stairs.
"What's with all the noise?" Kaylee appeared a few moments later, still too sleepy to be all that concerned.
"He's dead!" River cried. Her words shook the mechanic awake.
"What? Who's dead? Captain, what's she talkin' about?" Kaylee asked, face instantly alight with worry.
"Don't rightly know," Mal responded. "River, who's dead?" he demanded of her. River pointed towards the man lying on the floor, except that he was not there anymore. She stared at the spot where he had been. Not a drop of blood was to be seen. She examined her hands. They were clean. Her clothes, too, were what she had put on when she got up. Even her vision was back to normal. Frantic, she leaped up and ran to where the body had lain. Mal got out of her way, but watched her warily. She ran a hand through her hair, pacing over the spot.
"He was here. I saw him." She pointed at the floor, looking to Kaylee and Mal for corroboration. Her stomach twisted. They did not believe her. She did not need to see their confused expressions to know it.
"Who was here?" Mal asked. She stared at the floor, frowning and uncertain.
"What's going on?" Simon dashed into the dining area, Zoe shadowing him. He immediately recognized how upset River was and came to her. "River…" She recoiled from him, his worry like an assault on her raw nerves. "It's okay, River. It's me. What's wrong?" he asked, a disturbed frown crossing his face. She turned away so he would not see the tears starting to form.
"He was dead," she mumbled, picking at her lip, fingers still trembling. "The colors changed, and I had blood on my hands, and he was there on the floor."
"It's okay. There's nothing there, see?" he gently turned River to face him. "Was it a nightmare?" She shook her head, wrapping her arms about herself.
"I wasn't sleeping."
"All right. Let's get you down to the infirmary…"
"I'm okay," she asserted, thrusting his hands away.
"River, if you had a hallucination…"
"I wasn't… hallucinating." Her voice was hesitant. She was not really sure that was true. Simon regarded her evenly, but she felt his doubt.
"All the same, I want to do a quick check up, make sure you're okay," he said. She scowled at him.
"Think the Doc should have a look at you, just to be safe," Mal agreed in a tone that was not a suggestion. "Zoe, can you cover the watch for a while?"
"Yes sir. Just let me get somethin' more on." Zoe vanished towards her quarters. River watched Mal, arms crossed over his bare chest. She saw the unease written in his face and she felt sick. She twisted away from Simon and bolted from the room so they would not see her furious tears.
River hated the infirmary. Her every movement, her very posture emphasized that fact. Hatred was not even a strong enough word. She loathed, abhorred, detested the place. Even thought it was Simon's, she would never be comfortable here. The pop of a syringe top coming off made her jump. She closed her eyes, forcing some relaxation into her limbs. Simon swabbed the inside of her elbow with disinfectant and she winced just a little as he inserted a needle to draw blood. He did not say anything. She could tell he was waiting for her to speak first. She could play that game as well, and knew she would win. She remained stubbornly silent. Simon withdrew the syringe and pressed a gauze pad over the insertion point. She mechanically took over applying pressure while he stepped over to the counter. A machine whirred to life, filling the pregnant silence a little, but she felt her brother's mind quickly growing impatient. It was pressing him to get some answers. She gave him a few more seconds. When he spoke she shared a tiny, victorious smile with herself.
"Do you want to talk about what happened?" She held onto her silence a little longer before replying.
"I had a nightmare."
"I thought you said you weren't asleep?"
"I wasn't. Before that."
"Before you were in the dining area?"
"What was it about?"
"It was dark, storming. You and I were running. I got lost, lost in the dark. I lost you." She did not go into further detail.
"What about just now?" She shifted uncomfortably in the chair.
"I don't know."
"You said the colors changed. What did you mean?"
"They were wrong. Too bright, washed out, lots of blue."
"What about now?"
"And the body you saw?" Her silence dragged out a few seconds. "River?" She did not want to answer. She had been trying not to think too hard about it. Although it was disturbing enough in itself, what haunted her more was the blood she had seen on herself. That led to an obvious conclusion about how it got there, but she was not able to endure what that certainly meant. She was verging on tears again and turned her head away from her brother. Simon saw it and thankfully decided to not to press her any further. "It's okay," he said soothingly, but she sensed his deepening concern. Her stark phrases were all too familiar to him. The same fears she had felt after the nightmare were playing out in his mind, too. It was too much to bear at the moment, so with a deep, shuddering sigh, she settled back into the chair and closed her eyes and her mind.
Mal entered the infirmary, fully clothed now, and stopped before the exam chair. His pilot was slouched in it, eyes closed and apparently calm. Her chest rose and fell regularly.
"She asleep?" he asked Simon when she did not respond to his arrival.
"No," Simon shook his head. Mal folded his arms and scrutinized her. "So, how are you?" he asked after a moment. She opened her eyes and shifted them to him, but made no answer. He had seen that look enough to know if she did not want to talk, she was not going to, so he turned and posed the question to Simon instead.
"Well, I'm running her blood right now just to make sure there's no infection or metabolic imbalance. Otherwise, she's…" Simon trailed off as he glanced at his sister. Her face was turned obstinately away. He gave Mal an apologetic smile and shrugged. The machine beeped behind him and he turned to the screen on the wall, bringing up the results. Mal waited as he went over them. "Hmmm… nothing appears abnormal. All the levels are about where they should be. Everything looks fine."
"So what's that mean?" Mal asked.
"That she should be fine," Simon answered. River got up abruptly.
"Where are you goin'?" Mal stopped her with his question. She halted on the edge of the seat, not looking at him.
"Back on watch."
"No, you go back to your room. I'll have Zoe take the watch." Her jaw tightened, but she did not move.
"River, it might be best if you just got some rest tonight," Simon persuaded gently. Mal waited for her to protest. She did not.
"Yes, sir," she said instead. Her words were flat, stoic. She left the infirmary without a further glance at either of them, and Mal relaxed a little. That was the first time he had really given her the opportunity to challenge his authority, and he could tell she wanted to. He was not sure what would happen if she got it in her head to defy him, but she had obeyed, for now at least. He walked over to the wall and punched the com.
"Zoe, I relieved River for the night. Think you can handle the watch?"
"Good. I'll relieve you at 0800. So, she should be fine, but she ain't," he returned to his conversation with Simon. "Any idea what brought this on?" Simon shrugged. "Look Doc," Mal took a step closer, "if she's gonna be on my crew, she can't go flyin' off the handle like she used to. I thought she was better after… all that," he waved his hand. It was still difficult to speak about it sometimes.
"She is better. She's off the meds. I think the psychoses are gone but…"
"Gone? What was that then? I guess it's perfectly normal to be seein' dead bodies on the floor of the mess."
"I don't think it was a psychotic episode."
"What makes you say that?"
"She said she wasn't hallucinating."
"Does she know the difference?"
"Yes, now… maybe." Mal passed a skeptical glace over the doctor. "Look, she can understand what's going on. She knows what's real and what isn't," Simon explained. "But she's still got a lot of recovering to do. I think this was something else."
"Post-traumatic stress, maybe. She said she had blood on her, and we know she's… killed before. She's certainly seen more violence than any kid should, and it's not like she was in the best state to deal with it." Simon's voice carried a hint of accusation, but Mal was pondering the rest of his comment and did not take notice of it.
"You think maybe she's rememberin' some of that?" he asked.
"I can't say for sure. She was different then. Maybe she couldn't deal with those things, bottled them up and put them all away. Now that her mind is functioning better, they're coming back." Mal brooded for a while. A disturbing notion entertained his attention.
"Maybe those weren't the only times," he finally uttered it.
"The only times for what?"
"Her killin'." He looked pointedly at Simon. Simon swallowed hard. Mal saw he was not the only passenger on that train of thought, then. "The Alliance tried to turn her into a weapon," he went on, "and you don't send a weapon into battle 'fore it's been tested."
"It's possible," Simon agreed in a small voice.
"Knowin' the Alliance, I wouldn't put it past 'em," Mal growled. River was hands down the scariest person he had ever faced in fight. She was deadly enough hand-to-hand, and though he had not seen it for himself, he had seen the aftermath of what happened when she got a hold of a couple of sharp, pointy objects. He could only imagine the carnage of the actual battle. Psychic or not, though, no one got to that level of skill without practice. Lots and lots of practice. He stood in silence and could not help but feel a little sick at the prospect of River's hidden and potentially extensive violent past at the Academy.
"If that's what it is, it's not going to be easy for her," Simon interrupted his thoughts. "She was there two years before I could break her out. I've seen what they've done to her pathologically, but I can't imagine what two years of torture…" the doctor broke off in a choke of emotion. He took a second to recover and then continued more quietly. "She loves this ship, Mal. She loves this crew. It's her family now. It's our family," he added after a moment's hesitation. "She'll need our support." He gave Mal a significant glance. "Maybe it would help if you talked to her."
"I'm her captain, not her counselor," Mal said.
"I know," Simon was quick to reply. "And I'm not asking you to be her psychologist. But I just thought…" the doctor's uncharacteristic hesitance continued, and Mal frowned at him. He was dancing around something, and it was annoying.
"No need to mince words, Doctor. You got somethin' to say, just say it." Simon shifted uncomfortably.
"Look, I… I don't mean to pry, but you were in the war, Captain. Do you ever have flashbacks?" Mal stiffened. The question caught him off guard, and before he could quash them behind his usual defense, memory and emotion welled up like blood from a scab torn off an old wound. He stared at the wall, through it, while flashes of vision cycled through his mind. Faces. Friends and enemies. Pain, suffering, and death. The nights lying awake and wondering, why did it have to happen? But that was not the way things worked out. He shook his head, reeling everything back in and tamping it down behind his barriers.
"I've got a few that haunt me now and then," he admitted very quietly.
"I'm sorry," Simon apologized, clearly aware that he had touched on a tender subject. "I don't want to dredge up bad memories. I just thought it might be better for her to speak to someone who understands what she's going through."
"Conjure it might," Mal said, but his expression was closed off. "Well, get some rest," was all he offered as he left the infirmary.
Climbing the stairs, Mal confronted his warring thoughts. That little discussion had stirred up some dark corners of his mind, things he had tried hard to forget, or at least to live with. Still, his had been a choice. He volunteered for the war. River was not given that option. He did not think he wanted to know what she had endured. He found a quiet fury building at the Alliance, the same fury he always felt whenever he really thought about what had been done to her and all those unsuspecting citizens on Miranda. When would people learn. Shaking his head, he descended the ladder to his bunk and closed the hatch.
§1: Rush, "Caravan," 2010
§2: Sylvan, "The Colors Changed," Posthumous Silence, 2006