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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - DRAMA
Chapter 16: The crew must carry on and find a way to put an end to the Academy.
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 725 RATING: 10 SERIES: FIREFLY
River reached for the screen to end the broadwave. Her hand trembled with the effort. The screen, in fact the entire room, blurred in and out of focus. She could barely hold herself upright in the seat anymore. The drug was taking hold. -Should lie down,- the thought crept by, oddly rational. She tried to get up from the workstation, but simply slumped out of the chair. She did not feel the impact of hitting the floor. She did not even feel the pain from the bullet in her thigh anymore. The fire alarm and recorded voice swelled and diminished in waves. She managed to roll onto her back, but her pulse pounded in her temples from even that minor exertion. She felt feverish, wished someone was there to press a cool cloth to her forehead. It was so hard to breathe, and she was so tired now. Her eyes closed briefly. She was disconnecting, receding into the background. The part of her which used to be Ariel jerked her back to awareness, though. -Don’t give in,- it demanded. She struggled to rise, but her limbs were disproportionately large and clumsy, like her body was a suit too large for her. -No, it’s not mine anymore,- she tried to stay the resistant part of her. -Just want to sleep. Make it all go away.- If she was crying, she could no longer feel the tears on her face. A fleeting blur of movement by the door caught the corner of her eye. With impossible effort, she rolled her head to the side to look, but her eyelids sagged shut, unable to resist the weight any longer. The rolling blackness behind them rocked like the motion of a ship, soothing. A noise echoed, carrying forever across the vast gulf of space between her and the outside now, but it made no difference what it was. She was numb now. She did not hurt anymore.
“Ai ya… she’s in here!” Matthias Harder shouted over his shoulder when he spotted River’s lifeless body on the exam room floor. “River, can you hear me?” he rushed to her side, feeling at her throat for a pulse. It was barely there. Her chest rose and fell only sporadically. He saw the blood crusted on her thigh and examined the wound quickly. It was not bleeding much. -River?- he tried to reach her mentally. Her unconscious mind swirled with vague, dark images that were too faint to make out.
“Oh, no.” Anna ran to her husband kneeling beside the prostrate girl. Is she…
-She’s still alive,- Matthias reassured his wife as he pried her eyes open to look at her pupils, but just barely. He rubbed her sternum hard, calling her name again, but she still did not respond. The fallen autoinjector and the two empty vials caught his eye and a dreadful chill passed through him. He felt along her arms and finally found the tiny pinprick holes that were the signature of an injection site. “No…” He snatched up one of the empty vials and read the label. Throwing it away, he ran to the opened medicine cabinet and tore hastily through its contents.
-What is it?- Anna’s frightened thought came to him.
-She tried to kill herself.- Grabbing a small cylindrical packet, he hurried back to her side. He ripped the packet open and jammed the spring-loaded syringe into her upper arm, holding it for a few seconds. The girl’s condition did not change, and he shared a desperate look with his wife.
“Do you have her?” a voice called from outside the door.
“Yes!” Matthias shouted back.
“Come on, then! We have to go. Now!”
“Here, take this.” Matthias handed the large satchel he was wearing to his wife. He slipped his hands beneath River’s shoulders and legs and hefted her up. He was lanky, but not a powerful man. Even so, River’s lightness surprised him. Dark thoughts enveloped his mind, old sayings about a body being lighter after the soul departed. He pushed them aside.
-Do you need help?- Anna asked.
-No, I’ve got her. Go!- Anna flung the satchel over her shoulder and ran out of the room ahead of him. They moved quickly down the hall, their guide leading the way with his pistol. The man halted at the intersection of the halls and peeked around the corner.
“Guards. A lot of them,” he said. His eyes went to Anna’s bag. “Give me one.” Anna reached into it and withdrew a clanking glass bottle filled with liquid and stuffed with a rag. The man produced a lighter and ignited the piece of cloth. “Ready?” he asked. Anna nodded, closing her eyes and setting her shoulders. The man stepped around the corner and flung the bottle at the guards. They spotted him immediately and shouted, raising their weapons. Before they could react, he fired one shot, shattering the bottle in mid-air. The liquid exploded into a rain of fire. Anna released the charge of energy she had been building and a gust of wind drove the burning droplets right into the faces of the guards. They screamed and recoiled as the fire shower swept over them. “Go!” the man jerked his head and began taking the guards down one by one. Matthias took off, half shoving Anna along in front of him. He wove his way through the Academy’s subterranean corridors without hesitation. He knew this maze intimately, but right now he did not even need his memory to guide him. He simply followed the smoke. It thickened rapidly, soon almost completely blinding them. He crouched as low as possible, but it was difficult while carrying River’s inert form. He rounded the last corner and came face to face with the inferno raging in the main hall.
“Anna!” he yelled over the noise, coughing and choking. She struggled forward, bumping into him in the haze. -Can you do this?-
-Yes,- her responding thought was firm, but she could not hide the doubt behind it. He gave her the equivalent of a mental hug of support and urged her in front of him. Their guide hung back a few paces, tensed and waiting for any guards, though, in the smoke, they would be almost upon him before he saw them. Anna shut her eyes, tensing her body, head down in concentration. Matthias sensed the energy gathering. It surrounded her, building like a charged ball of electricity over her body. The air quivered with the tension of it. His nerves tingled, his hair standing on end. The energy increased, building greater and greater, and he grew a little frightened. She had never gathered this much before. He dared not disrupt her concentration with his worried thoughts, though. He had to trust she knew how much she could handle.
“Hold on!” Anna cried. Raising her chin, she let out a yell and thrust her arms forward towards the blaze, using the physical motion to propel her will and the gathered energy. Matthias never forgot that image of his wife, her face emblazoned red-orange by the flames, staring it down defiantly. Then the wind struck him like a shockwave from an explosion. The raw power of it was indescribable. The roar drowned out even the fire. It shrieked past his ears, sucking the breath right out of his lungs. He tried to brace himself, but the force still slammed him into the wall. He pressed himself there, gripping River tight, her hair whipping wildly against his cheeks. In a few seconds, it was over. Matthias gasped, drawing in a deep breath the vacuum had temporarily stolen. All that remained of the fire was blackened and scorched walls. Their guide just stared at the incredulous sight and Matthias appreciated his astonishment. Anna exhaled loudly and almost collapsed. The man woke from his shock in time to catch her beneath her arms before she fell.
-I’m fine. Go,- she did not let Matthias finish his thought. He took off through the still smoking hallway, Anna helped along behind him by their guide. They broke into the daylight on the surface and ran.
Serenity’s bridge was silent. All movement, all words, and all thought had been removed. Only an astounding emptiness hung in the hearts of the four people there. Simon bent over the console, head almost touching the screen. With infinite slowness, he raised it to look at the captain. Mal knew that look. It was the face of a man on the verge of losing what was most important to him. It was the face of a man about to lose his reason for living.
“Mal…” Simon only spoke his name, but nothing more needed to be said. Mal nodded, determination settling over him. He turned to Kaylee. The mechanic’s cheeks were shiny with tears.
“Kaylee, we’re gonna do a quick burn. Get us as much speed as we can.” Kaylee wiped her eyes and put on a brave face. She nodded minutely.
“Zoe, get Jayne and get the weapons prepped. Anything and everything you think we’ll need.” Zoe nodded, though it was clear she was still in shock as well. She urged Kaylee ahead of her and stopped to pound on Jayne’s bunk.
“What?” Jayne called up gruffly.
“Get your gear. Everything you can carry.” Her shock was melting away, replaced by the harsh, militaristic edge.
“What’s goin’ on?” Jayne asked.
“We’re goin’ in. We’re goin’ to get River,” Zoe said steadfastly. Jayne grinned after a second.
“Now that’s what I’m talkin’ ‘bout.” On the bridge, Simon still remained motionless over the console. Mal, in an uncharacteristic gesture of sympathy, reached out a hand and clasped it over the doctor’s.
“We’ll get her.” He gave Simon’s hand another pat and turned to the controls. He typed a few keystrokes and fired the maneuvering thrusters to re-orient Serenity’s path. Osiris’ half-disk shone through the viewports. Mal set their course and locked the helm. “Kaylee, light her up.”
The planet shuddered faintly in the window and Serenity leaped forward. Mal willed her on with all the haste in his heart. If he had been thinking rationally, he would have laughed at this as a fool’s errand and called himself mad. Even if they managed to slip by the Alliance’s defense network above the planet, they still had to find a clandestine place to land, no small feat on a highly civilized world of nearly four billion people. Their landing site also had to be close enough for them to make a quick entry, grab River, and get out. And, not to forget the whole storming the Academy bit would be a special kind of challenge all its own. But he was not thinking rationally. He was thinking of River, of her eyes as she pressed that injector to her skin. She had to know it was hopeless, that there was practically zero chance of her escaping again. Yet, in the prison, she had accepted it, just to make sure they were safe. And now she was giving up her life to save the others at the Academy. The rational part of him knew they would be too late. Even if they managed to get to her, she would be gone. That part said the best thing to do was to honor her final wish. However, he had been known not to do the rational thing from time to time. In fact, sometimes he had been known to do the stupid thing, or the rash thing, or the crazy thing. None of it mattered, though, because when it came to his crew, there was only one thing to do. No one got left behind.
The Cortex indicator light flashed again not long after they began to move. Mal looked at his screen and saw the “incoming broadwave” message flashing there. Simon was at his side, staring at it as well. They shared a look, both hoping, but almost not daring to. Mal almost tentatively accepted the wave. A slightly distorted image appeared on the screen.
“Doctor?” Mal asked in disbelief.
“Captain Reynolds. I have River,” Matthias told them. Simon’s jaw dropped. He could not speak.
“What? How did you…” but Matthias cut Mal off.
“No time to explain. She needs medical attention. She’s still alive but… What is your location?”
“Uh, we’re headin’ right for Osiris, about one and a half thousand clicks inside Tannhauser’s orbit.”
“Hold on.” He spoke something inaudible off-screen. “Change course for Epeuva,” Matthias indicated. “We’ll meet you in orbit in twenty minutes.” The wave cut off. Simon moved slowly at first, but quickly accelerated, making a mad dash from the bridge. Mal reached for the com.
“Kaylee, shut her down! We gotta make a course correction.”
“Roger, Cap’n.” He heard the rumble of the compression block die away and kicked on the jets. He yanked hard on the control stick, swinging them away from Osiris and aiming instead towards the backlit shadow of Osiris’ nearer moon. Steadying their trajectory, he reprogrammed the nav computer with their new heading. “Okay, Kaylee. Fire her up again.”
“What’s goin’ on? Why’d we stop burnin’?” Zoe hurried up to the bridge.
“Dr. Harder’s got River.” Zoe’s eyes widened.
“Don’t know and he didn’t offer. She’s in a bad way, though. Told us to meet him ‘round Epeuva.” Zoe rubbed her hand across her forehead, trying to make sense of it all. “You and Jayne get to the infirmary and help the Doc. I ‘spect he’s gonna need assistance.”
“Yes sir.” She ran from the bridge hollering for Jayne.
Simon bounded into the infirmary, surprising Inara who made an attempt to sit up.
“Simon, what’s wrong?”
“What happened?” Inara was still a little fuzzy on the details of all that went on since the firefight, but Kaylee had tried to fill her in.
“Dr. Harder rescued her,” Simon explained, rifling through the cabinets for supplies. “I don’t know how. But she… she…” he choked on his words and could not finish.
“Is she hurt?” Inara asked. Simon just looked at her with the most pained expression she thought a human being could wear. Her heart trembled.
“I’m going to need the exam chair,” he said.
“Yes, of course,” Inara started up.
“No, don’t move. I’ll help,” Simon put a hand on her shoulder.
“Simon, I’ll be all right,” she assured, but even as she said it, pain ripped through her side, and she could not hide it.
“Just stay there a second.”
“Doc,” Zoe appeared at the door with Jayne. “Cap’n said you’d be needin’ help.”
“Yes, help me move her.” He picked up the portable stretcher and tossed one half to Zoe. They eased Inara up and slid it beneath her. Jayne took the head end and Zoe and Simon each grabbed near her hips. “We’ll put her on the ledge. One… two… three!” They lifted the Companion over to the countertop that occasionally served as a spare bed space. Zoe detached the stretcher pieces and slid them from beneath Inara. Simon laid the blanket over her again. “You’re okay?” he asked, trying to be attentive though his mind was clearly not on her.
“I’m fine,” she assured him. Simon nodded. He returned to the cabinets and laid out a few more supplies. He whirled, looking for something else.
“Jayne, bring the stretcher,” he pointed to the pieces on the floor. Jayne nodded and followed Simon out. Inara fixed Zoe with a worried look.
“What’s happening?” Zoe looked down. When her head came up again, Inara was disturbed by what she saw there. The former soldier looked like she was about to cry. Inara had never seen Zoe cry, not even for Wash.
“She was gonna give up her life. She got us files on the Academy, so we could show everyone what they’re doin’ there.” Zoe held Inara’s gaze, and her tone grew humble, almost reverent. “I seen men and women do some heroic, some might call ‘em crazy, things during the war. But they were soldiers. River ain’t no soldier. I know she can fight, but… the way she just walked right back into that place without a thought for herself. Did it all for us. And she did it for the others there, too. Saved nothin’ for herself. She didn’t even blink. An eighteen year old girl.” Zoe shook her head. Inara was starting to see. She reached out for Zoe’s hand and squeezed tightly. Zoe looked up and, after a moment and squeezed back.
Mal shut off the proximity alert and watched anxiously from the bridge as a ship approached in the distance. It looked like a small transport, but looks could be deceiving, especially with the Alliance. Feeling the sweat break out on his forehead, he grabbed the radio and hailed the vessel on the regular channel.
“Dr. Harder, is that you?”
“Yes, Captain,” Matthias came back.
“How is she?”
“Not good,” was all Matthias would say. Mal’s heart thundered against his chest.
“We’re all ready for you. You get on over here.”
“We’re on our way.” Mal watched the ship grow closer, slowing and rotating for docking. He scanned vessel, but could not see where the airlock was.
“What the hell…?” he whispered to himself. “Where’s your gorram airlock?” he called into the radio.
“Port side, just above the engine strut,” Matthias replied after a pause.
“Doc, I hope you ain’t the one flyin’ that thing,” he responded nervously.
“Then your pilot better know what the hell he’s doin’. This ain’t gonna be no simple maneuver.”
“He’s gotten us this far,” Matthias said. Mal did not quite share the doctor’s confidence. He turned on the intercom.
“They’ll be dockin’ in a few seconds. Get ready.” He watched with bated breath as the ship inched closer. The airlock was so close to the engine mount he was not sure that, given the angle of the two ships’ hulls, they could solidly mate without doing damage to Serenity or the other ships engine pod. If not, they would have to assemble the tunnel, and that would take precious time that he was sure River did not have. “Careful, careful…” he whispered through his teeth as the ship slid beneath the bridge. The scrape of metal-on-metal shrieked momentarily. “Careful!” Mal shouted into the radio. His fingers turned white in their grip on the edge of the console. Finally there was a dull thud as the two ships met. Mal looked down at his readout and saw they had a positive lock. He released a huge breath. “Ship is docked, airlocks secure,” he shouted over the com, then threw the mic down and ran at full steam for the cargo bay.
Zoe heaved open Serenity’s door to reveal the faded white of the other ship’s hull. A few seconds dragged agonizingly by before the airlock on the other side hissed and slid open. Dr. Harder was there with River in his arms. He leaped over the uneven step between the two ships.
“River! Mei mei,” Simon was right beside him, nothing but her frightened brother at that moment.
“She’s comatose,” Matthias said.
“She’s been shot!” Simon exclaimed, noticing her bloody leg.
“It’s not serious. It’s barely bleeding, her vitals are so low.”
“What was it?” Simon asked.
“Rosanquinol. One hundred fifty milliliters.” Simon’s expression sank into dreadful horror. That was enough to put ten men the size of Jayne out cold, and River was one small girl. “I gave her a dose of epinephrine to counteract it, but I don’t know if it did any good,” Matthias continued.
“Hurry,” Simon urged. Jayne stepped forward with the stretcher, but Dr. Harder just passed him by.
“I’ve got her,” he said. Jayne watched the two doctors rush past him, rooted to the floor for a moment, then followed them with the stretcher still in hand. Mal leaped down the stairs just as Anna emerged from the airlock.
“Where is she?” he asked.
“Simon and Matthias have her already.” Mal looked over the smaller woman. Black smudges resembling soot covered her clothes and face.
“How did you…”
“I believe I can answer that, Captain Reynolds.” It took only a few milliseconds for Mal’s brain to register recognition of that voice, and he drew his pistol almost on instinct. Zoe’s mare’s leg was in her hands and cocked with surety as she leveled it at the man’s head.
“No! He helped us,” Anna pleaded, grabbing Mal’s arm and thrusting it down. He let her lower his weapon, but continued to fix the man with a deadly stare. Zoe shared his look.
“You have any idea what this son-of-a-bitch has done to us?” he growled, speaking to Anna. The Operative stepped through the airlock and into the cargo bay. He was in civilian clothes, and Mal noted the empty holster at his side, but that altered things very little.
“I surely do,” the weight in Anna’s voice drew his eyes down to her. “But we couldn’t have done it without him. Do you think Matthias and me could’ve rescued her ourselves?”
“So what then? You brought her back here so he can gloat while she dies?” Somehow, the Operative managed to look hurt.
“No, Captain. I brought her here because I owed her a debt. This is my way of repaying it.”
“I seem to remember sayin’ somethin’ about killin’ you the next time I saw you. You think I ain’t a man of my word?” Mal raised his pistol again, eyes flashing dangerously.
“I never doubted it,” the Operative replied calmly. “And now that I have fulfilled my obligation, you may do with me as you like.” He lowered his head and spread his hands in submission.
“Captain, please!” Anna begged. “What if he saved her life?”
“That don’t do nothin’ to help the others he killed.”
“No, it certainly does not,” the former assassin replied. He looked up and Mal was shocked to see regret and sadness where he once thought neither of those was capable of existing. “I once told you that I was a monster, and that I had no illusions about it. Well, it turns out I did. And when those illusions were broken, I was broken. But I could not just curl up and die, Captain. No, that would be the way of a coward. So I chose to try to atone for my sins, even though I knew it might end me.” He stared pointedly at Mal’s pistol. “I don’t ask for your forgiveness. I know I do not deserve it. All I ask is that at least I might have an honorable death.” Almost every fraction of Mal’s being told him to pull the trigger. Almost, except for one little piece. That part pitied the man, and it was just enough to stay his hand. Against all odds and all possible explanation, he had brought River back to them. He found himself relinquishing his aim and lowering his weapon.
“Zoe,” he said without taking his eyes off the Operative. “Get some cuffs.” Zoe’s eyes remained locked on the Operative as well, and her gun did not lower until she was more than halfway out of the cargo hold. “You’re gonna stay locked up ‘till this is all over. They’ll we’ll decide how to deal with you,” Mal told him coldly.
“As I said, Captain, I am at your mercy.”
In the infirmary, Simon and Matthias worked fervently to stabilize River. Jayne hovered in the doorway, worry clearly etched on his face, the forgotten stretcher still in his hand. Kaylee had come down from the engine room and was clinging to Jayne, watching with teary eyes. Unconsciously, Jayne put his free hand on her shoulder. Kaylee squeezed it. Inara craned her head around. River was pale and limp as a rag doll. Her hair, which Inara had just cut not long ago, was a tangled mess, with blood staining her left leg an ugly red-black. She closed her eyes and murmured a prayer for the girl.
“B.P. is non-existent,” Matthias relayed after inflating the sphygmomanometer cuff on her arm.
“Her pupils aren’t responding,” Simon said, shining his penlight in her eyes. “Is she still breathing?”
“Are you sure? I don’t…”
“Yes. She’s still alive,” Matthias stated, certain. “Give her another shot of epi.” Simon ripped out a self-injecting needle from the package, yanked the cap off with his teeth, and jabbed it into her arm. Kaylee uttered a small cry and buried her head in Jayne’s shirt. Simon and Matthias turned their heads anxiously to the monitors. Her heart continued to pulse in a lethargic, irregular rhythm. Matthias hung his head, but Simon kept staring at the screen.
“Come on, mei mei,” he pleaded in a whisper. “You can do it. You’re strong.” The readouts did not change. He turned his head to Matthias. The older doctor’s expression overflowed with sorrow. Simon swallowed the thick lump building in his throat. He turned away, and his brain reeled with shock as he happened to glance out the door.
It only took a second for it to wear off, and then he flew forward in a deadly rage. “You gorram hun dan self-righteous son-of-a-bitch!” Jayne and Kaylee recoiled in alarm, not aware that Mal and Zoe were leading the bound Operative by the infirmary right behind them. Simon tore past, but Mal intercepted him just before he reached the Operative.
“Let me go! It’s all his fault! Him and his rutting Parliament!” Mal grabbed Simon by the shirt and heaved him against the wall. He pressed his face very close to Simon’s, his words quiet but powerful.
“I know it is. But he helped ‘em get her out. He brought her back. That don’t change what else he’s done in my estimation, but we’ll deal with that when it comes to it. Right now you gotta see to your sister. Dong ma?” Simon’s breath rushed through his nostrils as he met Mal’s gaze. “Okay?” Mal asked again a little softer. Simon nodded, thrusting Mal’s hands away. Mal let go and took a step back, but made sure he was still between Simon and the Operative. “Jayne, go with Zoe. Make sure he’s locked secure in one of the passenger quarters.” Jayne had been staring edgily between Zoe and the Operative, and Mal and Simon, pistol drawn but not sure what to do. He nodded in response to Mal’s command and joined Zoe in escort. Simon’s eyes burned with hatred as they followed the Operative out of sight. Then he turned back into the infirmary. He pulled up a stool next to River and dropped heavily onto it. He gently took her hand between his and hunched over it, pressing it to his forehead. Mal stepped inside, watching Simon and River the whole time. He gave Kaylee’s shoulder a squeeze as he passed. She sniffed and wiped her eyes. Anna came in just behind him and wrapped her husband in a hug. She looked into his face and understood everything. She hugged him harder.
“Doc?” Mal asked after standing silently for some time behind Simon.
“I don’t know if she’ll come out of it,” Simon answered without moving, voice oddly thick. “The drug she took is a powerful tranquilizer, and she injected more than ten times the normal dosage. All we can do is try to keep her heart beating.” A weight settled on Mal’s face, but he tried to hide it. He felt eyes on him and realized they were Inara’s. Her expression told him she was sharing his feelings. They took comfort in each other’s face for a moment. Zoe and Jayne slipped quietly back inside a moment later. Everyone was silent, a pall hanging over the room. Anna and Matthias gazed into each other’s eyes intently, communicating in their special way at the speed of thought. Anna’s face paled slightly, eyes worried, but she set her mouth and nodded.
“Simon, there is one thing I can try,” Matthias offered. Simon looked up from his sister’s hand. “It’s a special technique.”
“What is it?” Simon asked, the embers of hope catching alight in him again.
“I can go into deep rapport with her. If she is still there, I might be able to bring her back.”
“I don’t understand. What exactly are you going to do?” Simon stood up.
“It’s difficult to explain. I’m not even sure exactly how it works. It’s like… projecting my consciousness,” he screwed up his face, not happy with his description. It made him sound like a carnival charlatan, but he went on anyway. “I can go deep into her mind and try to bring her out of the coma. But I mean it when I say I will be in her mind. I won’t be aware of my body or anything else outside. Anna will support me in case I…” he swallowed the dried up words with a heavy look at his wife.
“Is there somethin’ dangerous about this, Doctor?” Mal asked.
“Yes,” his eyes lingered on Anna second longer. “There’s a risk it might kill River. And it might kill me.” The weight in the room only grew heavier. “I’m willing to take that risk,” Matthias asserted gently.
“What if she’s not there?” Simon asked the question after a moment’s pause.
“If she’s not there, then we’ve already done everything we can. But if she is…” Simon glanced down at River, then back to Matthias.
“Thank you,” he nodded.
A foot stool was brought in from the commons and Matthias placed it next to River, opposite Simon. Anna stood behind him, placing her hands on his shoulder. He clasped them, looking up at her with absolute affection and trust. Then he settled himself into a relaxed posture, closing his eyes and focusing on his breathing. The meditative state was necessary to achieve the level of concentration he needed, but he had not done it in a long time. In fact, the only other times he had used the technique was during the war when… He stopped that train of thought. It would only bring pain and distraction. He refocused his concentration on his breathing and his heart beat. They were the rhythm of his life, the foundations upon which it was built. The sound of his pulse filled his head. Gently he synchronized each throb with the in-and-out movement of air in his lungs. His heart kept a steady one-two beat to every one breath. He held that pattern for a while, knowing that Anna was letting herself sink into a trance much like his own, but milder. She would help his body maintain that tempo while he was gone, gently correcting it if it slipped. Confident of her skill, he relaxed even deeper, forgetting the machinations of his body. He dropped farther and farther away from himself. Gradually, the blackness behind his eyes changed, giving way to something like twilight or a pre-dawn glow. He stood, or more like floated, over a black lake, its surface as smooth as a mirror. Around him, seven huge brilliant suns burned. He knew they were the crew, the manifestations of themselves, and that if he could see himself from their perspective, he would be just as they were. Their radiance emitted lines of force which stirred up ripples on the lake. Those force lines were the means through which readers worked, he knew that much. For some reason readers were sensitive to those waves while most normal people were not, like antennas tuned to just the right frequency. He stared around at the sight, not having seen it in a long while, and still awestruck by it. No one had a name for this place. Science could not define or explain it yet. Was it some metaphysical plane of existence, the spirit-world, or just a mental construct of his own, he never found the answer.
Searching among the flaming lights, he sought for the one that was missing. River. If she was still alive, her presence should still be here somewhere. Finally he found it. She was a tiny, guttering flame, barely visible on the surface for the brilliance around her. He had to get to her, and that meant crossing the lake. That was the most dangerous part. Beneath the glass-like surface, invisible currents and eddies swirled. Some were gentle and caressing. Some were powerful and violent. All threatened drown him or sweep him away in this vast, subconscious lagoon. If that happened, he would die, or at least leave his body a vegetable. His mental self took a deep breath and plunged in. The lake was neither hot nor cold, nor even wet. There was no tactile sensation in this place. But the currents instantly assaulted him. Disoriented for a moment, he felt their invisible grasp trying to weigh his body down, or draw him this way or that. He struck out, swimming hard, fighting the currents. Once again, swimming was less a physical act than an expression of his concentration. He willed himself forward, visualizing his mental projection beating at the lake with its arms and legs. A little more than halfway across, a particularly powerful undertow snatched him suddenly and dragged him down. Panic took hold. Thrashing in desperation, he managed to claw his way free before he was pulled too deep, and burst to the surface again. He swung around, reorienting himself from the momentary confusion. He found the tiny flame again. It was not much farther. He swam on, knowing the fatigue he felt was the mental strain of crossing this blackness between minds. He closed in on the mote, reached out for it…
White light exploded. He spun over, sideways, end-over-end in a violent vortex of motion. And then it stopped. He opened his eyes. He was on a rolling plain stretching forever in every direction. Wildflowers and tall prairie grasses grew almost up to his waist. Bright sun and clear blue sky greeted him overhead. Birds chirped and flitted by, completing the scene. It was a perfect day. Standing not far off ahead of him, he saw her. She was wearing a simple dress of deep blue which rippled in the gentle breeze. He strode towards her through the grass. She turned to him before he reached her. Her eyes shone with tears.
“Why did you come here?” River asked.
“I came to bring you back.”
“I can’t go back.”
“Yes you can. The crew, your friends, want you to come home.”
“They don’t understand. They can’t understand.” There was infinite regret in her voice. “They took me when I was still a child, took that away. Made me do things. Stained me. I can’t undo it.”
“Yes, you can, River. Your fate is not preset. You can break away from it.”
“No I can’t. I tried, but it followed me. I couldn’t escape it. It’s always there, and… and it hurts.”
“Your friends don’t judge you. They love you, no matter who you are. Your brother loves you more than anything.”
“I know,” her voice shrunk to a whisper. “I tried to live with it, for him. But they wouldn’t let me go. All they saw was…” Tears streamed down her face now. “Why?” she cried, flinging her head back to the sky. “Why is it always there, overshadowing the light? I don’t even have to speak and they know what I am! It soils everything. It will never wash away.” She buried her head in her hands, sobbing. Storm clouds rolled in from nowhere and rain started pelting down. The wonderfully glorious day turned dismal. “It always rains now when I’m here. The flowers die,” River said quietly, head down.
“River, please come back. You can let it go. Just tell yourself to open your eyes.”
“No, it’s always there.”
“The rain will be gone, and all this will be wiped away.”
“The stain never leaves.”
“Just leave it here, then. Step outside of this place. This is your past, not your future.”
“It will be waiting for me.”
“You have to believe you can overcome it.”
“I don’t want to.” Matthias stared at her, desperate to think of something else he could say to change her mind. “I don’t want to,” she whispered again.
“You can leave this, River. You’re special, and you’re strong. And we’re all near. Let me help you.”
“You want to help? Fix me?” She glared at him, her tone suddenly accusing and harsh. “Come inside. See what it feels like.” The tranquil flower fields blurred violently and a whirlwind of images slammed into Matthias. There she was in a classroom, a little younger than now, sitting still at a desk while all the children around her chattered pleasantly with one another. No one looked at her or spoke to her. She turned her head very slightly, eyes roving around the room as she sat rigid, gripping the edges of the desk. She felt different, thought different, was different. They knew it. She saw beneath the masks they wore. They did not understand, and were afraid sometimes. The image jerked sideways and she was in a place he knew very well- the Academy. She smiled, happy to think she had finally found somewhere she might belong. But that happiness was torn away by the harsh, sterile lighting of an exam room. Strapped to a chair, dozens of doctors watched her, making notes and talking amongst themselves as if she did not exist. Needles and IVs protruded from her arms and legs. A scalpel attached to a disembodied hand slashed across her scalp and blood ran down her face. She shrieked and screamed and tugged at her restraints, maddened by pain and fear, but the doctors only made more notes with cold curiosity. The scene shifted again with another stomach-churning lurch, and he followed her on Serenity, walking through the halls, but isolated from the others by a sort invisible of bubble. Sometimes they were speaking to her, and sometimes they were not-speaking to her. She could not always tell which was which. It was hard to understand them. Their voices were muffled, like cotton was in her ears. She tried to tell them what was wrong, but her words came out all jumbled, endlessly distorted by the membrane between her and them. Another jump and he saw her in her cabin, painting flowers on the walls. She closed her eyes and whispered for them to bring her peace. Then he saw her sneaking shots of whiskey or something else, creeping guiltily about the galley, but with a desperate need in her eyes. He saw her sitting on the catwalk, helpless and hopelessly drunk while she mourned her mother’s imminent passing without recourse. Lastly, he saw her cold reflection in a mirror, the River-that-was-not-River. She had a gun in her hand. Behind the reflection, a multitude of faces stared. Some showed no emotion. Others were horrified or confused. Her reflection turned to the faces. One at a time, with emotionless precision, she shot each of them until a sea of blood and bodies littered the mirror. The reflection disappeared and blood covered the real her. She stared at her hands and arms, turning them over and over, never able to tear her fearful gaze away.
The whirlwind flung Matthias back into the fields and he staggered, disoriented by the viciousness of it. Her memories seared into him, and he trembled. What he had only seen briefly, she saw every second of every day. He felt sick, wondering how she had borne so much.
“Now you understand.” She regarded him with tear-rimmed eyes. “I don’t want to hurt anymore. I don’t want to hurt anyone anymore. It will never go away. It’s a part of me now, and I don’t want it. No more. You have to let me go. I just want to be free.” The tears spilled down her cheeks again.
“River, your family needs you,” he said, but his voice wavered with doubt, still reeling from the horrific images.
“They’ll always have me. But I need them to let me go. Please,” she mouthed, her voice not even audible anymore, “please let me go.” Her plea was heart-rending and devastated what was left of his will. Tears of his own mixed with the rain on his face. He could not ask her again, not anymore. He could not ask her to keep enduring all she had shown him. He looked at her, feeling so terribly sorry that he wanted to say something. He wanted to apologize for his part in bringing this sorrow on her. He wanted to beg for her forgiveness on behalf of the ‘verse that had hurt her so deeply. But there was nothing more he could say. He only dropped his eyes and nodded. A shadow of a smile crept into her lips, despite her tears. She came over to him, took his hands gently. He raised his face to her.
“Tell them I’m sorry. Tell them I love them all. They won’t understand. But please try to help them see.” He nodded again. “Thank you.” A more genuine smile spread to her face as she took a few steps back. The sun broke through the clouds, setting the raindrops on the field glittering. Where the sunlight hit her, her face shimmered just like the flowers surrounding her. The distance between them widened without either of them moving, as if the prairie were expanding on its own. He was beneath the rain clouds still, but he did not notice. He watched as she looked up to the azure sky, basking in it. Then she turned and walked away, her dark hair the last thing he saw sinking over the crest of a knoll. After a long while staring at where she disappeared, he turned away, too. The jagged spinning overtook him, and he was back in the lake. Gritting his teeth, he struck out for the light he knew was his. It drew him back like some sort of imaginary line was tied to him and reeling him in. It made it easier, but he was tired to the bone. The currents threatened to drag him down in his exhaustion. He fought with every shred of will he had left, straining for his light with his last ounce of strength. Whiteness engulfed him. Then there was only black.
He heard a gasp and his eyes flew open. Concerned thoughts in his mind mingled with the equally concerned faces around him. Simon was nearest to him, saying something, but his voice was hollow and muffled. It took a few more seconds before his hearing adjusted back to normal.
“Dr. Harder, can you hear me?” Simon was asking.
“Yes,” Matthias wheezed, realizing he was taking heavy, labored breaths. He was slouched against something, looked back and saw it was Anna. She was white as a ghost and a sheen of sweat glistened on her face, but she was still standing. She gripped his shoulders fiercely and gave him a half-panicked, half-relieved smile and the mental equivalent of a bear hug. He sat himself up under his own power and Simon dabbed a piece of gauze at his nose.
“You had a seizure,” Simon told him seriously. Matthias wiped his nose and a streak of blood smeared his fingers.
“I’m fine,” he dismissed Simon’s concern. His sights went directly to River, and the tears came forth unbidden. He dropped his head, heaving a shuddering sigh as he tried to control the emotions. Anna sniffed behind him. She had felt it and already knew. He looked at Simon, eyes glassy. “I’m sorry, Simon. I had to let her go.”
River walked through the fields of wildflowers her garden had become, eyes raised to a sky so blue as she had never seen. It drew her up gaze up, almost reaching out for her. The grass tickled her bare feet, caressed her legs, and brushed through her fingers. The breeze blew on her face, carrying with it the multitudinous scent of blooms. She looked down the rolling slope before her. A mirage shimmered and rippled in the distance, coming closer. When it was near enough, it resolved into a familiar figure.
“Is that you, preacher-man?”
“Yes, child.” The warm face with the hoary beard smiled at her in welcome. She looked around at the endless fields, confused by his presence.
“Is this heaven?” she asked, uncertain.
“No, not yet.” She swallowed, even less certain about her next question.
“Will I go to heaven?”
“That depends on what you believe.” He waited expectantly. For a long time, she could not answer.
“I don’t know,” she finally said with a child’s plaintive ignorance. He smiled gently, comforting.
“What do you want?”
“I want to be free,” she swallowed.
“And do you think you will be free in heaven?”
“Yes, I think… I hope so,” she hesitated again. “But I don’t know if I deserve to be. I don’t know if heaven exists.”
“Because I’ve done things. Things your book says people shouldn’t do.” Her heart felt crushed in her chest by the weight of those memories, making it hard to breathe.
“And why did you do those things?”
“I did them for my family. For my friends. I just wanted to keep them safe,” her voice was hushed.
“Did you know that the Book also says there is forgiveness?” She nodded. “That’s what the Lord taught us, to forgive our enemies. But sometimes we forget we have to forgive ourselves as well, and that is often a much harder task.” He took her by the shoulders, looking deep into her eyes with his kind, wizened ones. “He does not judge us. In the end, we judge ourselves, by our actions, by our words, and by our intentions. When all our exploits are laid bare, it is our own selves we stand before in judgment. The Lord shines the light to show us the way, but it’s up to us to decide if we are worthy to walk His path.” She looked away for a moment. When she met his eyes again, a faint glimmer of hope danced in her heart.
“I have a choice? I can choose to forgive?” He nodded. “And I can be forgiven?”
“Yes,” he beamed.
“And then I’ll be free?”
“Yes, child. They won’t be able to hurt you ever again.” Her eyes slowly closing, she raised her chin to the blue sky. The sunlight blazed through her. That unbearable weight crushing her chest slowly lifted.
The breeze had died, just the palest whisper stirring a stray hair against her cheek. She did not so much fall as lie down in the field. Opening her eyes, she saw the sky had turned a deep, deep blue, nearly black. Stars appeared, unfamiliar and brighter than any she knew of. “The stars are so close.” She reached out as if to touch them.
“Yes, they are.” She could not see him anymore, but felt he was still near.
She felt another familiar presence. “Hi, Wash.”
“Hiya, kiddo.” She was silent a long time.
“Zoe misses you.”
“I know. I miss her, too.”
“Who will take care them? Simon and Kaylee and the captain and…?”
“They’ll all be looked after. You can even watch over them, if you like.” She smiled, closing her eyes again, thinking she might like that.
She basked in the radiant starlight.
“If this is a dream, please don’t wake me.”
“It’s not a dream.” She nodded.
“Will I be allowed to dance?”
“You can dance to your heart’s content.” Her smile broadened.
-Everything is clear now. I understand.- She could not feel the grass beneath her anymore. She felt light, almost like she was floating. The stars were nearer, their light pouring into her. She thought she could hear music, the strains of her favorite dance piece just beginning.
River’s body shuddered. As the last breath went out of her, a smile of such rapturous joy overspread her face. All the sorrow and torment was wiped away in an instant, leaving her pure and innocent again. That smile filled the room, engulfing all of them with its brilliance, and for a moment all Simon could see was his sister dancing. Then she was gone.
“She’s free,” Matthias pronounced very softly.
“River… mei mei…” Simon pressed his forehead against hers and remained there. His tears ran across her cheeks. Kaylee sank to the floor, weeping as she clutched Inara’s hand. Tears flowed freely from the Companion’s eyes as well. Mal stood in stunned silence, just a quaver on his lip, his eyes not quite dry, staring into space. Zoe wiped the moisture from her eyes. Jayne slouched to the floor against the door jamb, hands on his knees, head hung low. Anna wrapped her arms around Matthias’ neck and buried her head in his hair. He did not bother to fight the tears stinging his cheeks. For a long time they poured their sorrow out in that room, crying for their friend, crying for the girl who had been “little sister” to all of them in one way or another. “Goodbye,” Simon finally whispered, pressing a gentle kiss to River’s forehead. He stood up slowly, red-rimmed eyes taking in everyone around him. His family, their family. He wiped the salty streaks from his face. “Captain,” he turned to Mal in the end. “I wonder if you would… help me bring my sister home.” They looked at each other for a long time. Simon’s eyes began to fill up again. Finally Mal nodded. He turned and walked out of the infirmary.
After a few moments, Matthias rose and followed the captain. He chased Mal down on the bridge where he was at the helm, entering commands into the computer.
“Captain, what are you doing?” he asked.
“Just what I said I’d do. I’m gonna bring her home.”
“You know can’t make it to Osiris.”
“Yeah? And why not?” Mal whirled in his chair, eyes ferocious.
“I know the deal she struck with the Alliance. They blow us out of the sky in a heartbeat.” Mal’s ire cracked a bit. He covered his shaky confidence with bravado and spun back to the controls.
“If you think I’m gonna let the Alliance stop me from gettin’ Simon and his sister home, you got your head screwed on wrong,”
“River gave you a charge,” Matthias went on. “Who else is going to speak for those at the Academy? She gave up her life to get you that information. I think she would rather you fulfill that charge than get yourselves killed trying to return her body.” Mal swung out of the chair, dangerous fury dancing across his face. Matthias felt it like a physical blow, but he held his ground, eye-to-eye with the captain. Mal clenched and unclenched his fists, hands trembling. After many seconds, his rage ebbed and he broke his gaze with Matthias. He fell into his chair weightily and leaned on the console, pressing his fingers against his eyes.
“What do you want me to do, Doctor?” he asked in resignation.
“Give her to him.” Mal snapped his head up.
“That ain’t even an option,” he dismissed it contemptuously.
“Captain, he got us in and out of Osiris. I’m sure he can do it again. For River, I know he will.” Mal stood up again, rounding on Matthias.
“I swore that man would never lay a hand on that girl. Some of mine gave their lives to stop him. And you want me to trust him with her now?”
“Yes,” Matthias confirmed. “He can’t lie, not to me. I think you’ll find he’ll be more than willing.” He strode off the bridge, beckoning Mal to come along. Mal refused to move for a few seconds, then, more than a bit reluctantly, followed behind.
Down in the infirmary, Zoe hovered in the doorway. She was torn between staying to keep watch and trying to listen in on the heated discussion the captain, Simon, and Matthias were engaged in just beyond her hearing. She looked back inside. Jayne had disappeared somewhere. Kaylee remained at River’s side, stroking the girl’s hair and crying. Anna was trying to console her, while Inara reached out to comfort her friend, but could do very little from her makeshift bed on the countertop. The three men wrapped up their debate and moved off towards the passenger compartment. Zoe was about to follow, but she glanced into the infirmary one more time and stopped. For some reason, she was drawn back inside. She patted Anna’s shoulder and the woman moved aside so she could stand next to Kaylee.
“Oh, Zoe! I can’t believe she’s gone,” Kaylee sobbed, wrapping her arms desperately around Zoe. “It ain’t fair! Why couldn’t they just let her be?”
“It’s okay,” Zoe soothed, hugging back and rubbing Kaylee’s arms. “She’s still one of us. We’ll take care of her.” Kaylee nodded. Zoe eased her away from the exam chair, Anna helping guide her over to Inara. Zoe found a clean blanket and laid it at River’s feet. With calm that she only maintained from experience, she gently unfolded the cloth and draped it over the body. Kaylee burst into another fit of tears as the River’s face disappeared beneath the shroud. Zoe swallowed the lump in her throat and came to stand with the others.
“We should… we should… say somethin’… you know. Like… like what Shepherd Book might say,” Kaylee stuttered through sobs.
“Okay, Kaylee,” Inara nodded. The four joined hands and lowered their heads. Inara quietly invoked a prayer in Chinese, praying for River to find peace and enlightenment on her journey into the hereafter.
“I wanna say somethin’, too,” Kaylee added quietly when Inara was done.
“Go ahead,” Zoe urged.
“Dear God, if you’re there, please look after River. She’s our friend, and she’s Simon’s sister. She’s real special to all of us, and… and we just want you to make sure she’s happy and not hurtin’ no more. You take real good care of her for us, now. Okay? Thank you.”
“Amen,” Anna concluded quietly.
“Amen,” Zoe whispered as well, and, for the first time, the tears really started to flow. All four women held each other and cried together.
Mal, Simon, and Matthias sat across from the Operative, three sets of penetrating eyes surrounding him. He regarded each of them somberly. Simon spoke first.
“River is dead,” he uttered in a monotone.
“I’m sorry,” the Operative said, and there was genuine emotion in his face. His head sunk a little.
“If you’re truthful about wanting to repay your debt, there is one more thing you can do.”
“Name it,” he did not hesitate.
“Can you get to Osiris?”
“Yes, I can. When I was… working for the Alliance,” he considered his words carefully, “all traces of my identity were erased from any records in existence. After I left their employ, I had a blank slate with which to start from. Now I am a simple courier. They have no reasons to suspect.” Simon waited a long time before asking his next question. He glanced at Matthias for reassurance, and Matthias nodded very slightly.
“Will you bring River to my father?”
“It would be my honor,” the Operative spoke with grave reverence.
“Fine. When you’ve done that, consider your debt repaid. Then I don’t ever want to see you again.”
“And know this,” Mal added to Simon’s words. “If you step out on us, I swear to you I will hunt you down, and I will keep my promise.”
“As I said, Captain, I never doubted your word. And I sense we will not meet again after this.” All four of them rose. Mal, face still stony, unlocked the cuffs. The Operative rubbed his wrists as they fell away.
“Get your ship ready. We’ll bring her to you,” Mal ordered. The Operative inclined his head to each of them and left the room without further words.
Simon watched from the bridge as the Operative’s ship drifted away from Serenity. It rotated, catching the glint of the sun on its hull. The engine pods ignited with a blue flare and it gradually accelerated away. Simon kept his eyes on it until it was too distant to see anymore. The emptiness inside him was all-consuming. Before, at least there had been sadness to fill the space in his soul. But now that River was gone in both body and spirit, he felt like all the substance of him had been torn out. He just wanted to sink to the floor and cry himself into oblivion. But he could not. River would not have wanted that. She may have been at peace now, but justice for her was still undone. It was time to remedy that situation. First, though, he had to send a wave. It would be the hardest thing he ever had to do.
Gabriel Tam crept out of his wife’s room, easing the door closed without making the latch click. He tiptoed down the stairs so they would not creak. It was meaningless, for even if she could hear, she would not wake up, but it allowed him to feel for just a little bit like she really was only sleeping. He went into his study on the first floor and shut the door. He had heard the incoming wave alert from the Cortex while upstairs, but nothing interrupted his nightly vigils by Regan’s side. He checked the com screen to see who it was. The code was not listed, but there was a message. He logged in and brought it up. River appeared on his screen and he was both shocked and delighted. He had no idea where she had disappeared to since she fled and it had him sick with worry. His delight turned to concern, though, as he noted her haggard appearance, very frail and tired.
“Dad,” she greeted.
“Hello, bao bei, he murmured.
“I’m sorry I ran away, but I had to. I had to help my friends. I’m also sorry,” she paused for just a second, “that I can’t come home again.” She visibly swallowed some emotion, her unsteady voice deepening Gabriel’s concern. “I wanted to be with Mom, but I won’t see her again, so please tell her goodbye for me.” Her voice cracked at the end, and Gabriel’s eyes began to moisten. “I’ll be leaving soon. Please know it’s not your fault. It’s just too much. But I’ll be okay. Just please don’t blame yourself.” She swallowed again, gazing unsteadily into the camera. Her appearance had rapidly gone from haggard to sickly. She was visibly trembling and her face turned an ashy palor. He could tell it was a struggle for her to continue speaking. “Promise me you’ll forgive Simon. It’s not his fault, either. He only wanted to help me. He still loves you, and he’ll need you after I’m gone.” Gabriel shook his head, confused and frightened by her words. She did not sound like herself, and she did not look well at all. “I have to go. Can’t…” her eyelids fluttered like she was about to pass out. Gabriel instinctively put a hand on the screen steady her. “Promise… you won’t forget… not your fault. Simon… I love you, ba ba. Love you…” the last two words barely made it out of her mouth.
“River…” Gabriel called to the screen, despite himself. A shaky hand moved in front of the camera, and the message ended. Brimming with worry, he brought up the transmission details and looked for any indication of where it might have come from. Wherever she was, Gabriel knew his daughter was in trouble.
Another incoming wave interrupted his search. Finding some hope in coincidence, he quickly accepted the transmission.
“Son!” he cried out. Once again, though, the moment of joy was brief. Simon looked drawn and haggard as well. His eyes were obviously red from crying. Cold tendrils of fear worked their way into Gabriel’s heart.
“Dad,” Simon greeted flatly.
“Simon, what’s wrong?” Gabriel saw Simon’s throat work for a few seconds as he tried to respond.
“Dad, River is… River is dead.” Icy shock stopped Gabriel’s heart cold. Then disbelief pushed it away. It was not true, could not be true.
“No. I just got a message from her. She left it not more than an hour ago. I just watched it,” Gabriel said. Simon hung his head despairingly, eyes downcast. He wiped one eye with the back of his hand.
“She died in my arms, Dad, here on Serenity.”
“No… no, she can’t be…” Gabriel’s certainy faltered.
“I’m sorry,” the emotion turned Simon’s voice hoarse. “I tried to save her, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t.”
“No…” Gabriel repeated, unable to accept it.
“They did it to her,” the anger allowed Simon to gain control of himself again. “They made her take her own life.” His father was not hearing him, though. Gabriel sat on the edge of his chair, staring at nothing.
“No… River…” was all he could say.
“Dad? Dad, please listen.” Simon finally coaxed his father’s attention back to the screen. Gabriel’s lip trembled, eyes swollen with tears. “I’m sending her home. Someone is going to bring her to you. Please… please take care of her.” Gabriel broke down.
“No… River… no, no, no…” His shoulders heaved with sobs. The tears returned to Simon’s eyes as well. “Why?” Gabriel cried, almost plaintively, to his son.
“Because the Alliance wouldn’t leave her alone. I have to stop them. That’s what she told me to do, before she died. No one else will suffer what they did to her.”
“The Alliance?” Gabriel asked through his tears, not understanding.
“Don’t worry about it now,” Simon dismissed. “Just take care of River.”
“But… but you’re coming home, right?” Forlornly, Simon shook his head.
“I have to do this first.”
“But Simon. River… and your mother….” Gabriel coughed and choked back another sob.
“I’m sorry. But when this is done, I promise I’ll come home.”
“I love you, Dad.” Simon terminated the wave. Gabriel continued staring at the empty screen. Then he slumped deep in his chair and buried his head in his hands.
Mal waited for a minute or so after Simon finished out of respect for him to regain his composure. Only then did he venture back on the bridge. Simon looked at him and only nodded. Mal took the helm, but just sat there. He found it hard to turn his thoughts to anything other than the fact that River was gone. He was stuck in neutral.
-How do you go on after this?- he asked himself. -You just keep movin’.- That was the only answer. It was how he survived after the war. It was how they managed to stay alive and occasionally employed. And it was how they would find some closure for this. They just had to keep going. River had done all she could. It was their turn now.
“So what’s the plan, Cap,” Jayne strode onto the bridge, slightly unsteady, whiskey bottle in hand. “We gonna go in like Miranda?” He grinned a little sloppily, lifting the bottle to take another draught. Then he passed it roughly to Simon. Simon took the proffered container and swigged a mouthful of the bitter stuff.
“No, we don’t got that option no more,” said Mal. “We gotta do this right. There ain’t anyone in the ‘verse who’ll rightly believe us, so we gotta get this information to someone they will believe.” Simon handed Mal the bottle and Mal took a sip as well. Zoe made her way onto the bridge and parked herself on the console next to Mal.
“We could release it to the newsfeeds. They’ll spread it to every world in every system,” Simon suggested.
“It’s too big. They can’t sort through all those files and make sense out of it for people. Besides, most of ‘em are on the Alliance’s leash anyhow. They won’t run anything against them. We need someone who’ll let the truth get out there without distortin’ it.” Mal handed the whiskey to Zoe who nodded and accepted it. She took a sip, then asked,
“Do we know anybody with those kind of contacts?”
“I do,” Inara broke in. She limped up the stairs on Kaylee’s arm, wincing with every step, but determined nonetheless.
“Inara, you shouldn’t be up,” Simon told her.
“I’m not getting left out of this,” she asserted. Simon backed down, but was clearly uncomfortable with her choice. “I know some people within the Guild who might be able to help us.”
“You’re still suspended, remember?” Mal reminded her. In all the turmoil she had honestly forgotten and her face fell. Zoe was the only other person who took notice of the revelation, but did not comment.
“I have an idea who we can take this to,” Matthias offered, he and Anna rounding out the crowd. “He’s in the perfect position to make use of this information, and I believe he is honest enough that he will do the right thing. He can get the Academy shut down.” All eyes turned to the doctor. “Our ‘guide’ during the rescue had been trading information with him. I don’t think he realized I knew, but I picked it up at a moment when his control was a little lax.” Matthias gave them the name.
“You sure he’ll be sympathetic?” Zoe questioned.
“I think he’s the best chance we’ve got,” Matthias qualified.
“Only one way to find out,” Mal said. He turned to the Cortex. Within two hours, they had their answer, and their course was set.
Soong Chu-yu strode into the high-ceilinged chamber, abuzz with voices and energy. He knew this day was coming when he would eventually be summoned to testify about Miranda, especially after Locherbie had found out about the capture of Serenity. He was not worried. He was mostly annoyed. This was just a show, Locherbie flexing his political muscle. Chu-yu knew he would have to indulge in his posturing, as had everyone else who the committee had called to testify. He just wanted to get it over with so he could focus on more important matters, like where River Tam had disappeared to this time, and how it was possible that Matthias Harder and two others could break into the Academy and spirit her away. He had exploded at Kriegel when the major general informed him of the breach. It was preposterous that three civilians armed with nothing more than Molotov cocktails and handguns could storm a secret Alliance facility and make off with its most valuable possession. He dropped into the spongy leather seat behind the witness table and stewed a little. In one corner of the room he noticed a flurry of activity. Peering closer, he saw that the newsfeeds were here. He snorted aloud. The hearings had been closed to the press, but he supposed Locherbie could not pass up the opportunity to grill the Chair of the Military and Security Oversight committee in front of the entire ‘verse. It was all about the drama.
A syncopated thumping on the floor approached, and he was surprised to find Major General Kriegel leaning on his crutches at the end of the witness table. Dismay was more of the emotion displayed on Kriegel’s face. Trying not to look at Chu-yu, he sat down awkwardly and rested his crutches against the table’s edge.
“Major General,” Chu-yu greeted with cool cordiality, though he did not look at the man. He thought Locherbie must really be going for the gusto to drag both of them to the same hearing. “I trust you’re making some progress on your little incident.” He flashed a glare Kriegel’s way, and the military man dropped his eyes.
“Gentlemen, I didn’t know you would be at this hearing today, too,” William Halmer greeted them both. Now Chu-yu really frowned. It did not make sense that Halmer was here. The committee had already heard his testimony.
“I didn’t expect to see you, either, Will,” Chu-yu said darkly.
“I suppose Locherbie just can’t get enough of me,” Halmer joked with wry humor.
“Yes, I suppose,” Chu-yu said without laughing.
The door behind the dais at the head of the chamber swung open and the committee members began filing in, led by Jansen Locherbie. He carried his muscular bulk with pride, and Chu-yu could not help but sneer as he took his seat in the center of the other members, behind the plaque that read “Chairman Hon. Jansen Locherbie - Boros.” Locherbie lifted a gavel and pounded it twice, signaling silence in the room.
“For the record, this hearing is of the Select Investigative Committee regarding the communication known as the ‘Miranda wave.’ We are now in session. I’ll begin with roll call. Committee members, please answer if present.” Chu-yu waited impatiently for the procedural doldrums to end. “Please note that all committee members are present today,” Locherbie announced at the conclusion of roll. “Now, would our witnesses please stand and idenitfy themselves, for the record.” Chu-yu went first.
“Soong Chu-yu, representative to Sihnon and Chair of the Military and Security Oversight Committee.”
“William Halmer, Administrator of the Security and Intelligence Agency.”
“Major General Daniel Kriegel, head of Special Weapons Research and Development divison of the Alliance military.”
“Thank you gentlemen. Now please raise your right hands and prepare to take the oath,” Locherbie instructed. All three did so. “Thank you. You may be seated.” Locherbie waited for the rustling of bodies to die away before he spoke again. “First let me begin by noting that I have invited members of the press here today because several days ago I received some information that I found truly disturbing. I have reviewed it, and shared it with my fellow committee members. Although it was very difficult to accept,” a look of pain darkened Locherbie’s face, “we could not doubt its veracity. We also agreed that it should be made public as soon as possible.”
Here it comes, Chu-yu thought. He had been waiting for days for Locherbie to find out he had released Serenity. He almost had to smile at the man’s political acumen for waiting to disclose that information in an official hearing.
“This information is so disturbing it calls into question the very principles of our governmental system. That such travesties could be committed by our fellow public servants against the citizens they represent casts a long shadow of doubt upon our claim to be a beacon of civilization for the ‘verse.” His voice rose into controlled, self-righteous indignation. Chu-yu had to admit, Jansen had style and flair for a Border world yokel. “However, I feel it is only right that I allow those who have suffered the most and directly at the hands of this despicable endeavor to share their stories in this forum. Please bring in the other witnesses,” Locherbie called out. Voices rippled throughout the room. A guard disappeared out a rear door of the chamber. Chu-yu, Halmer, and Kriegel all shared looks of confusion and turned with the rest of the crowd to see who was coming through the door.
Chu-yu’s mouth gaped like a fish out of water, and Kriegel blanched like he was going to pass out when they saw the train of people the guard led in. Behind the guard strode Simon Tam, and behind him, Captain Reynolds. The others of the group he presumed were the rest of the crew of Serenity. The sight of the next person in line nearly physically knocked Chu-yu over. Kriegel, seeing the same thing, looked like he wanted to curl up into a fetal position on the floor. Following on the heels of the crew was Matthias Harder. Voices continued to buzz and the newsfeeds captured it all as the guard led them right past the cameras and to a separate table on the opposite side of the chamber’s center aisle. Chu-yu continued staring, dumbstruck, for several more seconds. Then he turned to his microphone.
“Chairman Locherbie! This is an outrage!”
“Order!” Locherbie pounded the gavel. “Representative Chu-yu, you will please wait to speak until it is your turn to testify,” he instructed coldly.
“These ‘witnesses’ are wanted fugitives! I demand they be arrested at once!”
“Perhaps you can explain then why you personally authorized their release on their own recognizance, with only minor charges, just five days ago,” Locherbie retorted evenly.
“They are terrorists and enemies of the state at the highest level! That one there,” he pointed to Dr. Harder, “is the most wanted fugitive in the ‘verse!” Chu-yu shouted.
“I believe the latest security bulletin lists Dr. Harder as presumed dead, and as such he was removed from the fugitive wanted list.” Locherbie was almost smiling as he said those words. “They are free citizens and were subpoenaed to this hearing just as you were.” Chu-yu’s mouth worked soundlessly.
“This hearing is a farce!” he finally screamed. “I will not be party to a committee that allows terrorists and convicted criminals to stand up and spout lies in what is supposed to be an investigation into the truth!”
“You will maintain order, Representative!” Locherbie slammed on the gavel. “You are bound by oath and do not have permission to leave this chamber.”
“Your authority disappeared when you showed yourself to be in league with these traitors,” Chu-yu accused, slamming his chair back from the table. “I’m calling in the Parliamentary Guard to arrest them immediately.”
“You will sit down or I will have you bound to your chair and gagged!!” Locherbie hollered, standing up and stunning even Chu-yu for a moment with his vehemence. “You are all witnesses at this hearing, and therefore are granted immunity until such time as this session is over and your oaths are released,” he raked his sharp gaze over everyone at both witness tables. “If anyone deserves to be arrested, I will order it at the conclusion. Now, may we have order,” he slammed the gavel one more time and eased back into his chair. He reserved a deadly cool glare for Chu-yu. The Sihnon representative shot venomous fury from his eyes, but he slowly took his seat again. It was Locherbie’s game now, and he knew it. “Thank you. Would the new witnesses please stand and identify themselves for the record.”
“Dr. Simon Tam, Medic, Firefly transport Serenity.”
“Malcolm Reynolds, Captain, Firefly transport Serenity.”
“Zoe Washburne. First mate, Serenity.”
“Inara Serra, registered Companion.”
“Um, Kaylee, I mean, Kaywinnit Lee Frye. I’m Serenity’s mechanic.”
“Jayne Cobb. Uh… Serenity’s… security specialist.”
“Dr. Matthias Harder. Founder and former head of the Academy for the Gifted and Advanced Studies on Osiris, and passenger on Serenity.”
“Anna Shen, Dr. Harder’s wife and a passenger on Serenity as well.”
Chu-yu committed each of their names and faces to his memory as they spoke. They would never be able to hide from him again. But one thing troubled him. River Tam, the most obvious person to be here, was missing. He could not fathom why Locherbie kept her from the hearing. If his intent was, as it seemed, to expose the Academy and its dealings, she and perhaps Dr. Harder were the only ones he needed. He could not understand why he dragged the entire crew of Serenity into this.
“Thank you. Please raise your right hands and prepare to take the oath.” They all complied. “You may be seated,” Locherbie instructed after the oath had been taken. The chamber grew mightily silent for a few moments. Everyone seemed to be holding their breaths, unsure what to expect after the earlier fireworks. “Dr. Tam,” Locherbie called. “I believe you would like to make a statement first.”
“Yes, Mr. Chairman, I would,” Simon leaned forward into his microphone.
“Please,” Locherbie motioned him towards a podium to the right side of the dais where he could face both the committee panel and the witness tables. Simon grabbed some sheaves of paper and a disk and walked to the podium. He connected the disk to the reader and worked the controls for a moment before readying himself to speak. His face was level, determined, resolved.
“Your Honors,” he addressed the dais. “Ladies and Gentlemen.” He took a deep breath. “I’m here because, three days ago, my sister, River Tam, died. She was eighteen years old.” A giant hologram of River’s picture appeared behind him. “She took her own life as a result of the severe mental and physical trauma she experienced at the hands of the government-run Academy for the Gifted and Advanced Studies. Some of those hands are in this room.” His piercing gaze settled on the three men at the far witness table. “But before I tell you about the horrors she and others like her endured, first I want to tell you a little about her, so you will understand just how extraordinary she was. My sister was more than gifted. River was a gift…
bao bei- darling
Wednesday, August 18, 2010 2:50 AM
Thursday, August 19, 2010 7:03 AM
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