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.