river_meimei: (little soul)
River is dreaming.

But not the classroom, this time. No smiling teacher, no students sleeping or arguing, no map of the solar system -- no Reavers. No foreboding.

A stretch of rocky desert sand, instead, under the shadow of a cliff. The wind has carved the rock into sinuous shapes, and at its foot is a small spring. Green clusters of spike-leafed plants grow among the stones, studded with creamy translucent flowers or globular clusters of white blossoms.

River is sitting cross-legged against the cliff, watching a bee move among the flowers.
river_meimei: (i shoot with my mind)
There's no one she has to watch for, now. Everyone whose life matters, everyone whose face she needs to watch for, everyone whose presence might pull her back from the razor's edge dance -- they're all on the other side of the blast doors. Safe.

It's just her, now.

She has never been so clearly and cleanly just her. Each moment is precise, and full, and enough.

--Punch a jaw kick a head and a torso and spin, duck, grab, stay ahead, over the crate in a handspring that keeps her an unpredictable moving target, blade in her hand and she spins to slice a throat and slash a grasping arm--

They die around her, and keep coming.

She's scratched, spattered with blood -- a little of it's hers, but most of it's theirs -- but she doesn't even notice. It slicks her palms. Something to watch for.

They died long ago. Died with the Pax that killed everything that made them individual people.

--Throw one into three others, kick a hand at just the right instant to knock the Reaver's blade into his own face, grab a knife from his other hand as he falls in a gush of blood and fling it at a throat, spin and slice and dodge--

They don't know how to lie down. They're dead, but they're trapped in their bodies. Never found the Lady or heard her wings. They slice the skin, but they can't get free, and they never lie down.

River can send them to her.

The white face flickering at the corners of her vision isn't a distraction at all, and the fluttering of wings blends with the screams and snarls and grunts of exertion.

Keep moving. Time to stand and be true.

(See us for who we are)

No quarter.

(and what we do.)

No prisoners.
river_meimei: (don't know what i'm saying)
Kaylee's choking and pulling the Reaver's darts from her throat; the foaming bandage-spray holds the skin of Zoe's back together, but there's only so much it can do. Bullets and darts and arrows are flying everywhere, and the Reavers' snarls and swinging blades. "Everybody fall back!" Zoe shouts. "Fall back!"

River barely notices when she's half-steered and half-carried through the doorway to the corridor beyond. The Reavers are too many, coming on too fast. They have to retreat to a more secure position.

It doesn't matter. The Reavers are still howling, baying for blood, screaming and snarling and dying in incoherent rage; she can't think, can't see, their bloodlust and pain are pounding in her head like the maces they swing, smashing her mind to pieces as she tries to hold it all. The gun dangles loosely from her hand.

Inara settles Kaylee on a box long enough to for her to lie full-length, and whirls to slap a control box on the wall. The blast doors close, irising shut. They'll be safe here; nothing's getting through those doors until they're reopened, not Reavers nor Alliance.

...Except the doors have just ground to a halt. Half-open. There's a gap over a yard square -- enough to squeeze through, enough to fire through. Enough that this is no safety at all.

River huddles against the wall, moaning.

"Jayne!" Zoe shouts. "Grenade!"

Jayne fumbles at his belt. "Very last one," he warns. Twists it on, and tosses it through the hole in the doors. Red fire explodes, and Reavers die screaming. None of the crew flinches, except River.

"They're gonna get in." Zoe is staring at the opening. The grenade only delayed things, and briefly.

"Can close it," Kaylee wheezes. A breath, and then she admits, "...From the outside."

"No one's coming back from that." Zoe tries to push herself up from the box she's sitting on, and gives up. Turns to Jayne instead. "How much ammo do we have?"

"We got three full cartridges and my swinging cod." He's grim. "That's all."

Inara is pounding the controls for the elevator at the back of the corridor. Nothing happens.

"When they come," Zoe tells the group, "try to plug the hole with 'em." It won't work, not well enough. They all know it.

The red, blood-hazed rage is still pounding through the air, slicing through River's brain. They're saying nothing, it's all they say, it's all they are, rage and hunger and pain, and it never stops. She presses against the wall, whimpering. She's trying to listen to her friends, to Simon, trying to be here and now, trying to be a tumbleweed instead of a stone but it's hard, it's so hard, she can't think and everything is hazed over.

Kaylee tries to shift, and chokes back a cry. Simon crouches next to her. "I'm startin' to lose some feeling here," she whispers. "I think there's something in them darts they throwed at me."

"Lie still." Even in this panic, Simon's voice is level and calm. He reaches for his bag. "I'm going to give you something to counteract the--" His bag's not there.

It's still outside the blast doors. Behind the crates they were crouched behind, back where they were, in the room that's now swarming with Reavers. Simon stands, looking at Zoe. "My bag--"

The bullet catches him in the stomach, and there's a breathless moment when time holds still for River and she can focus on his perplexed face before he crashes backwards to the floor, blood already starting to soak into his shirt, and she screams without making a sound.

Inara is already fumbling for cloth, pressing on the wound to staunch the blood -- Simon goes white -- and grabbing his hand to put it on top of the makeshift bandage. "Keep pressure here," she tells him. Her voice is almost steady.

"My bag," he whispers. There's a thin sheen of sweat on his face. "Need... adrenaline. And a shot of calaphar for Kaylee. I can't..." He looks over, with an effort. "River?"

She scrambles over. Kneels by him, and takes his hand.

The world has snapped into focus. Everything has receded but this, here, now.

"River," Simon whispers. "I'm sorry."

She's already shaking her head, tears bright in her eyes. "No. No." Shushing him.

"I hate to leave," he tells her.

"You won't." She swallows. Gently, "You take care of me, Simon." She comprehends, now. It's ontological. "You've always taken care of me."

She stands, slipping her fingers free of his. The world is steady around her. The howls are a dim thudding pulse. "My turn."

River whirls, and sprints down the corridor. If anyone shouts, she doesn't hear it, doesn't notice any grabs to stop her -- a dive carries her through the gap in the blast doors, and she hits the ground in a roll, already dodging as she comes to her feet.

It's only a slap of a button to start the doors closing again -- she spins, ducks, grabs Simon's bag and throws it through just before hands clutch at her arms and the hole disappears.

And it's just her and a roomful of Reavers.
river_meimei: (disconnected)
The ship is deserted. Ransacked, doors hanging from their hinges, bits torn from consoles, but it's old violence. No bodies.

Everything is still.

Serenity's crew picks their way through the sparse debris. Those that carry guns are holding them at the ready, but it's halfhearted now. There's nothing to kill here. Everybody's already dead.

It's a research vessel, and its tables and counters are scattered with the detritus of that work. Papers and wires, the blinking lights of sensors and the beacon they followed, a hologram disc lying crooked in its player.

River's hand settles on the disc. Turns it. It clicks into place, and the player's data-clips rise around it.

A flickering in the air, and then the hologram begins.

Screens, with still pictures of corpses. The ones from outside -- dessicated, mummified, untouched by any poison or violence. In streets, in houses, in shuttlecraft and offices. More, and more.

"These are just a few of the images we've recorded," says the doctor standing behind them. She's calm, tidy, competant, but weary horror lines her face, reddens her eyes. "And you can see it isn't... it isn't what we thought."

"There's been no war here, and no terraforming event. The environment is stable."

"It's the Pax." The words fall like stones into the silent room. "The G-32 Paxilon Hydrochlorate that we added to the air processors. It's..." The researcher is tearing up, now, her voice trembling as she tries unsuccessfully for control. "Well, it works."

"It was supposed to calm the population, weed out aggression. Make a peaceful... it worked. The people here stopped fighting. And then they stopped everything else. They stopped going to work, stopped breeding... talking... eating... There's thirty million people here and they all just let themselves die. They didn't even kill themselves. They just..." She swallows. "Most starved. When they stopped working the power grids, there were overloads, fires -- people burned to death sitting in their chairs. Just sitting."

There's a loud bang, and everyone jumps -- but the researcher jumps, too, and gathers her focus. It's part of the hologram, part of this recording from no one knows how many years ago, and whatever it is it terrifies her.

"I have to be quick."

"There was no one working the receptors when we landed, so we hit pretty hard. We can't leave. We can't take any of the local transports, because--"

Another bang, louder.

"There are people... They're not people. About a tenth of a percent of the population had the oposite reaction to the Pax. Their aggressor response increased... beyond madness. They've become..." She's fighting back tears again, trying not to shake. "They've killed most of us. Not just killed. They've done... things..."

"Reavers," Wash whispers, as the holographic doctor falters. "They made them."

"I won't live to report this," the doctor tells her recording device. She's trying to be businesslike, and almost managing. Almost. "And we haven't got power to... People have to know." The noises from outside her ship are louder, now, and her control is fraying away to nothing.

"We meant it for the best," she pleads with no one, brokenly. "To make people safer." More banging, and inhuman snarling. "To -- God!" She whirls, fires a gun at something behind her, and raises the gun to her own temple, crying and laughing and shaking so hard the gun barrel trembles. She never gets off the shot -- a Reaver is on her, knocking the gun away, biting and tearing as she screams and they fall from the projector's view, and she's still screaming, and the mad snarling howls--

"Turn it off," Jayne rasps.

Wash twists the hologram disc to the off position with a hand that shakes almost as much as the nameless researcher's.

The abrupt silence is deafening.
river_meimei: (bleached)
Miranda looks normal, from space.

Serenity hits atmo in a flickering blaze of reentry, and passes into thick shrouding clouds. Sensors still work, of course, but only thick fog is visible through the front windows.

That, and a few smears of red paint. Everyone tries not to look at those.

Zoe frowns in some perplexity, hits a few buttons, and keeps frowning. "Every reading I'm getting says normal," she reports. "Oceans, landmasses... no tectonic instability or radiation.

"Yeah, but no power either," Wash points out.

Mal is leaning one arm on the back of Wash's chair. Captain's perogative. "Nothing at all?"

Wash starts to shake his head, and then pauses. "Wait. Something." He flicks a switch, filtering and focusing the sensors' scan. "Might be a beacon, but it's awful weak."

Mal straightens up. "Find it."


--------------------------------------



They land in a deserted dock in a deserted city, one of a dozen they've flown over. No power in the landing receptors, no people in sight -- it's like touching down in the empty badlands of a border moon. Except that they're surrounded by gleaming buildings worthy of any Core city. Mal, Zoe, and Jayne emerge from the ship first, in full pressure suits with guns at the ready. They're on edge, prepared for almost anything.

What they get is... nothing.

Gravity, oxygen, air pressure... everything's Earth-normal, say the scanners. No detectable toxins. When Mal pulls off his helmet the other two stand wary and poised, but nothing happens. The terraforming is fine, and as for disease or poison... Everything's perfectly normal.

Except that nothing's alive but weeds.


--------------------------------------



They make their way through the dust-scoured streets cautiously. The whole crew, now. Everyone sticks together; no need for pressure suits, not with the air fresh and clean as a Sunday morning, but somehow no one's reassured. The silence is eerie.

It's after a tunnel -- Zoe goes first, shotgun leading the way, and calls the all-clear in a soldier's low grunt -- that they find the first corpse.

The body is patchy skin stretched over bones, sun-bleached rags of clothing puddling about it. Zoe crouches. "No entry wound, fractures..." she says, as Mal trots up, waving the others to stay back.

"Poison?" he suggests.

The two trade a glance, and then Zoe rises. No answers here. Keep moving.

They turn corners, follow a stairway off the main road. The only sound is their footsteps.

"Got another one!" Jayne's peering into the dirt-fogged window of a parked hovercraft. Two withered bodies, one a young child. "They's just sittin' here." He steps back, scanning the craft and the air beyond. His voice is troubled. "Didn't crash."

They find more, and more. On corners, in vehicles, propped in chairs and curled under desks. An entire office building, hermetically sealed by automated processes when the planetary power went out -- every body in the place is preserved.

"There's no discoloration," Simon says, frowning at the room full of skinny corpses. They're all grouped around the huge front windows of an office, staring at its occupants. All except River; she's back a few yards in the middle of the street, flinching at shadows. "Nobody's doubled over or showing signs of pain..."

"There's gases that kill painless, right?" But doubt creeps into Mal's voice.

"But they didn't fall down." Inara says it, but they've all noticed. "None of them. They just..." She shakes her head. "Lay down."

"More than anything, it looks like starvation." It's a clinical puzzle, for Simon. Or he's trying to make it one, anyway. Puzzles don't creepify, as Jayne might say. They have distance.

Simon's not entirely succeeding, from the tightness in his face.

Inara muses again, "They just lay down..."

River's wail startles them all. Kaylee jumps; Simon whirls; Mal and Jayne's hands tighten on their guns before they realize what the sound is.

River crumples to her knees in the middle of the street. Her face is knotted with agony, tears tracking unnoticed down her cheeks. "Réncí de Shangdi, qĭng dài wŏ zŏu," she pleads in a broken tumble of words. "Make it stop. They're everywhere -- every city, every house, every room, they're all inside me, I can hear them all and they're saying..." Her face twists as she sobs for breath, and chokes out, "Nothing."

She spins on her heels, staring fixedly at nothing. "Get up!" she begs, half-screaming. Simon is on his knees beside her, shushing her softly, reaching for her shoulder, but she doesn't seem to notice. "Please, get them up! I can't carry it, wŏ shàng méi ĕr, méi xīn, bĭan shítou, please God make me a stone..." She breaks off on a sob.

Jayne stalks towards them, hand tight on a gun. "She's starting to damage my calm," he grits.

"Jayne--" Zoe warns.

He spins. "She's right!" The shout reverberates off empty buildings, silent streets. Dust puffs lightly over his boots. "Everybody's dead! This whole world is dead for no reason!"

"Let's get to the beacon," Wash says into the silence that follows. His voice is almost steady.
river_meimei: (lying down)
The dream, again.

The classroom is empty, this time; no teacher lecturing at the front, no students kneeling at their desks. Only clean pale wood and white cloth, and the garden beyond, and everywhere sunlight.
river_meimei: (lying down)
The grating of the floor is cold under her cheek. River's eyes are closed, lashes dark against her wan face.

She's dreaming.

The outdoor classroom, again. White tented roof, floor and desks of pale wood. The public gardens surrounding the tent are green and lush; couples walk the paths, murmuring together. Water ripples sofly over lilypads in the nearby pond, and everything is drenched in light.

It should be peaceful.

"Why don't we all lie down?" suggests the smiling teacher. "A little peace and quiet will make everything better."

"No," River's younger self is protesting. "No."

"River?"

The other students are obediently curling up, closing their eyes, relaxing into the wooden floor.

"No!"

The teacher is lying down, too, still smiling, showing them how to behave. But her voice is sharp. "River, do as you're told."

High and desperate, "No!" and the scene shifts, perspective shatters, the world is made of light and then River is barefoot on the wooden floor, standing among her younger self's sleeping classmates.

She's wearing the electrode-studded bodysuit and slit-sided tunic that were burned long ago, when she was free of the Academy and could wear her own clothes again, and a rivulet of blood trickles down her forehead from the tidy hole of their mind-probe's entrance wound.
river_meimei: (disconnected)
River's dreaming again. The same dream she has nearly every time she closes her eyes these days, in infinite variation and infinite repetition.

A roof of white canvas, over a wooden-floored classroom; there are no walls, and the public gardens surrounding the class are lush and green. Students kneel at low desks, often, before a gently smiling teacher. Not this time; this time it's empty. Just River.

Everything is white sunlight, peace, quiet. Saturated with it.

She's wearing one of the Academy uniforms. Her forehead bleeds from a long-healed wound -- a tiny dot of blood, puncture wound from one of the Academy's mind-probes.

There's a screen, at the front. The picture shifts as she focuses on it. Silent steps on the sunlight wood, nearer and nearer, and it grows as she does -- and then there's only the picture for a moment, no classroom and no sun, but only the sudden flash of almost-comprehension as the world becomes a planet viewed from space, a perfect Earth-like world spinning slowly in the black.

And then a flash that is

(rooms of dessicated corpses)

no, that is

(the planet in silent peaceful rotation around the sun)

no, that is

(men and women lying down to skeletal sleep)

and no, it's just the classroom, sunlit and beautiful and calm, but there's something underneath, something--

She's breathing faster and faster, eyes flickering here and there, to nothing and to waving fronds of bushes and to mummified corpses that aren't there when she looks back--

An animal growl and there's a Reaver next to her, hand locked around her throat and the other on her jaw, rank with sweat and blood, rage pulsing in the air and hot breath on her cheek, gashes gaping on his face, he's baring sharpened teeth to bite, taste the flesh and fear--

She's awake. Disoriented--

(Hissed words, just below hearing)

She's awake.

Her eyes narrow with focus.


----------------------------------



The bridge is empty. Wash is with Zoe; the ship's on autopilot. They're a few hours from Haven yet.

The bridge isn't empty any more. River is perched in the copilot's chair, feverishly tapping keys and touchscreens, searching through a maze of maps on the Cortex.

She's looking for a planet that doesn't exist.

And she's found it.


----------------------------------



"How can it be there's a whole planet called Miranda and none of us knowed that?" Kaylee asks.

"Because there isn't one." Mal leans against the wall, arms crossed. "It's a black-rock. Uninhabitable. Terraforming didn't hold, or some such. Few settlers died."

Simon's hand rests on River's shoulder; she's curled in the chair still, watching the screen, moving in tiny restless twitches.

"Wait a tick..." Kaylee frowns down at nothing, dredging up faint memory. "Yeah! Some years back, before the war. There was a call for workers to settle on Miranda. My daddy talked about going. I should've recalled."

Wash tilts the yoke a few degrees, and flicks a switch. They're in atmo now, working their way towards Haven and Shepherd Book. "But there's nothing about it on the Cortex," he protests. "History, Astronomy -- it's not in there."

"Half of writing history is hiding the truth." The victors write it; everyone knows what Mal thinks of that. "There's something on this rock the Alliance doesn't want known."

Inara studies the copilot's screen, where Miranda still floats in her orbit-grid. "That's right at the edge of the Burnham Quadrant, right? Furthest planet out." Mal nods. "It's not that far from here," she points out.

Wash is already shaking his head. "Whoa, no, no--"

"That's a bad notion." Zoe's voice is clipped, overlaying her husband's, as she slips past River and Simon to touch the screen.

"Honey, show them the bad."

"I got it, baby," she tells Wash. A few taps, and the view of Miranda pulls back to show a wider view of the quadrant. "This is us, see?" One finger indicates a spot in the corner. "And here's Miranda. All along here, this dead space in between --" She sketches a curve between the two points. "That's Reaver territory."

Into the utter silence, Wash says, "They just float out there, sending out raiding parties..."

"Maybe a hundred ships," adds Zoe. "And more every year. You go through that, you're signing up to be a banquet."

"I'm on board with the run-and-hide scenario," Wash states, to general expressions of silent agreement. He glances back at the monitors, and to the sloping side of the mountain rising ahead of them. On the other side is Haven, Shepherd Book's sanctuary. "And we are just about..."

He squints, as they round a spur of rock. "Wait..."
river_meimei: (on the catwalk)
River is walking through the ship. Barefoot and intent.

Every hallway. Every room. Every doorway.

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river_meimei: (Default)
River Tam

August 2010

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