Chapter 10

Kriegel slouched over his desk, one hand bolstering his chin while the other held the electrofilm readout containing the latest report from the Heinlein system. His drooping eyes drifted to the clock on his com screen and noted that it was getting well on towards evening.

Already? he thought with more glum exhaustion than disbelief. He leaned back in his chair and passed a hand over his face. He had scarcely left his office in the past week and events were beginning to blur together. He managed to snatch a scant bit of sleep when he could, an hour here, fifteen or twenty minutes there, but otherwise every spare moment had been dedicated to coordinating the operation to locate Serenity. And if that was not taxing enough, he had to grapple with Chu-yu as well. Checking the clock again, he realized the representative would be expecting another pointless update on the progress of the search in a few minutes. A resigned sigh suffused his frame. It was no use arguing with the man. He had demanded he be kept in the loop with regularly scheduled briefings, even though there was nothing to report but the continued lack of any development. Half the ships in the Red Sun system were scouring the quadrant, but it had been impossible to track Serenity down so far. Burning without nav sat guidance for any length of time was about the most dangerous thing in the Verse one could do. Even the worst fool of a captain knew how frighteningly easy it was for a ship flying blind to be obliterated by a collision with any one of innumerable uncharted objects, or to stray so far into interstellar space that food and fuel would fail long before it could get back on course. But Kriegel knew that Reynolds was no fool. In fact, he was quite the opposite. And without a pulse beacon to lock onto or a nav sat trajectory to follow, the daring move had effectively made Serenity vanish. However, it was still a calculated risk, and Reynolds could not have hazarded a burn of more than a few minutes at the most. Anything more was nigh on insanity. That meant the ship could not be far off of the established navigation routes, or too far outside the system. It was only a matter of time before they would have to signal one of the Cortex beacons to at least verify their position. All Kriegel had to do was wait for them to poke their head out of the proverbial hole, except that he did not have the luxury of time. Every moment lost was crucial now. Threats against the Alliance might have been set in motion already. There was no telling what Reynolds could have done with the information he had gotten from Dr. Harder. He needed to draw them out now. Fortunately he had hit upon a possible solution in his last consultation with Dr. Qin. However, much to his irritation, Chu-yu had balked at it. True, it was risky in the sense that it might potentially draw some unwanted attention to the Academy, but it had a better probability of success than sweeping an entire quadrant grid by grid and giving Reynolds time to plan his next move. At this point there were few remaining alternatives. In his view, it was time to take a preemptive tack rather than struggle to mitigate the fallout after the fact. He was not looking forward to another argument with the representative, but it was the only way forward that he could see. Punching in Chu-yu's code on his com, he considered his strategy as the broadwave connected.

"I hope you have some good news for me this time, Major General," Chu-yu answered without even bothering to greeting him. "Do you have them yet?"

"No," Kriegel reported wearily. "We still haven't been able to locate Serenity."

"This is bi bi du mao han bi! You're telling me you can't find one lan bao Firefly?" Chu-yu erupted. Kriegel restrained himself from snapping back, although plain exhaustion prevented him from doing so more than anything else. He was well used to these kinds of outbursts from the representative, and most of the time he did not let them bother him. But in a situation like this, it was a real pain in the ass. It did not help that, despite being the head of a military oversight committee, Chu-yu had never actually been in the military. As a result, he did not have a grasp of the complex details this kind of operation entailed, and neither did he care to find out. He simply issued orders and expected results in return. But that did not change the fact that Kriegel was still ultimately accountable to him, so he summoned his discipline and endured the abuse with stolid patience.

"There is a lot of space to cover, Soong," he tried to explain. "A needle in a haystack doesn't begin to come close to describing it. Unless they access the Cortex, there is no way we can track them. Which is why, as I said before, I think we need a change of tactics."

"I told you I'm not interested in that option," Chu-yu stonewalled.

"Why not? The background we have on River Tam suggests we can get her to come to us. If we can reach her, we stand a much greater chance of bringing them all in."

"And what about Harder? He has no loyalty to the Tam girl or to Reynolds. He most certainly won't fall for a ploy as obvious as that. He'll slip away and we'll never find him again. Are you suggesting that we should capture Reynolds and his crew at the expense of letting the Verse's most dangerous fugitive go free and clear?" Chu-yu mocked.

"Yes," Kriegel answered simply, with a bit of delight when the representative's face deflated in surprise at his reply. "Whatever Harder knows, he most likely told Reynolds already," he went on. "If Reynolds finds a way to get that information out, it will make no difference whether we find Harder or not. The damage will be done. What really matters is stopping Reynolds and discrediting his information, and the girl is the key to doing that."

"It could drive them out further, where we would never find them," Chu-yu shook his head, his sarcasm replaced with uncertainty.

"But they'll have nowhere to go. Their friends will become their enemies, and those that don't turn on them will distance themselves as much as possible."

"You're sure it will work?" Chu-yu remained dubious.

"The psychological profile in her records supports it. This might be one thing River Tam will still respond to," Kriegel confirmed. "Besides, if it doesn't work, we'll be no worse off than we are now."

"That's assuming your security measures are sound." The parliamentarian's mouth worked around in consideration for several seconds. "Fine. You have my permission," he conceded. "Go ahead with the operation. But you'd better get them this time," Chu-yu warned and then terminated the wave as abruptly as he had begun it. Kriegel sighed again. At least he had succeeded in making his case this time. Even with that behind him, that still left a few more waves to make, and then a personal visit to get the ball rolling. It was going to be another sleepless night.

Chrysabel frowned at the half of her screen displaying her business accounts, and then at the man who occupied the other half. His smile was one of unflappable calm. Somehow he even managed to be a bit ingratiating. The perfect gentleman, this one was. She did not trust him a millimeter. She checked her accounts again. The balance had increased in the second or two since her last glance at it. He had actually come through.

"Well it appears you are a man of your word after all," she commented dryly. He offered her a genial smile.

"As I promised. I know the amount is not as much as what you would have liked, but I would feel remiss if I did not compensate you some for your trouble."

Trouble indeed, the Gangster of Boats thought. "I appreciate the gesture," she said aloud. She was sorely disappointed at missing out on the million credits, but fifty thousand was not a paltry amount. The whole deal had turned into one big cluster, what with the Feds probing and prodding into her doings now, and she was ready to take anything away from it that she could.

"I thank you for your assistance. The information you provided is of great importance to my purpose." His smile was just as smooth as ever.

"You're welcome," she replied, now wondering suspiciously who had gotten the better end of the deal.

"Good day, Miss Chrysabel," he inclined his head gracefully and vanished from her screen.

A week out from their encounter with the Lancer, the mood on board Serenity was decidedly subdued. Although they were heading for what they hoped was a safe haven, no one knew for sure what they would encounter when they arrived at Anson's World. Any information regarding the Alliance's search for them remained notably absent from the Cortex newsfeeds, which was no surprise. But it made it very difficult to gauge just how close or far away they were from immediate danger. And with no other forms of communication, nor anyone to even reach out to in any case, they were essentially flying blind. Furthermore, the supply of foodstuffs purchased with Chrysabel's advance plus whatever they had leftover from before would barely last them long enough to get to where they were going, and that was already at half rations. The reclaimators would hold out their water supply for a bit longer than the food. But the most pressing concern was fuel. River had been constantly at the helm since a day or two after their escape, Mal realizing that he had no choice but to rely on her to keep them on the most direct path possible. She calculated their change in their position every hour or two, and manually adjusted the ship's trajectory to optimize their fuel consumption. In the intervals when she was not doing that, she was focusing her every faculty solely on keeping whatever was inside her from breaking out. She managed to maintain a functional appearance and perform her duties, but only just barely. Meanwhile, her condition was deteriorating rapidly.

The presence inside her had now become a creeping ooze, insidiously slipping through the cracks in its mental cage to reach out and influence her. She realized the danger one night when Jayne dropped a cup while she was in the dining area taking her rations. She sprung out of her seat at the noise as if a grenade exploded in the room, landing in a defensive crouch on the far side of the table. Jayne just stared at her with a mixture of surprise, distrust, and mild amusement. He may have found it funny in some respect, but she was terrified. She only just caught herself as the colors started fading, stopping on the verge of doing who knew what. After that, she sequestered herself in her room as much as possible, locking the hatch as a precaution lest she suddenly lose control again. She did not dare sleep. She did not know if the sinister persona inside her could slip its restraints while she was unconscious, but she had no intention of finding out. Meditating in her garden was her only escape, but soon even that would not be enough. Those eyes were always waiting for her when she came back, lurking just on the edge of the darkness. She was growing dangerously unstable with each passing day, and she knew she had to find some way to keep it in check, if only to protect the others.

Her first thought was to appropriate some smoothers or sleeping meds from the infirmary, but Simon was meticulous with his inventory and he would notice immediately. So she turned to the only other option she could think of. She snuck a jug of Kaylee's homemade wine into her room. Over the next several days it became her routine immediately upon her brief respites from duty to seal herself in her quarters and drink into a narcotic stupor. The alcohol numbed everything, including the dangerous presence. Once it was sedated, or at least her body was too impaired for it to be a threat, she collapsed onto her bed, welcoming the blissful silence that enveloped her. Unfortunately, that was only a temporary solution. The contents of the jug disappeared more rapidly than she anticipated, so in desperation she resorted to thievery, stealing shots of Jayne's private stock of whiskey. Fortunately Jayne was not nearly as fastidious about keeping track of his liquor as Simon was about his meds. But when that eventually ran out, or Jayne finally did take notice, she would have no other recourse. She cut back on her "dosage" to stretch her pilfered supply, taking just enough to fog up her mind, but it was barely adequate to keep the presence at bay. She had to devote more and more conscious effort to resisting it, and it was a battle she was slowly losing. Each day her mirror returned a reflection that was more hollow and weak. Dark bags lurked beneath her sunken, glazed eyes. Her mouth was pinched in perpetual strain, and an increasingly sick pallor colored her skin. She was just a shell, a spiderweb of cracks through which more and more of her was slipping away. And between those cracks, she caught glimpses of a frightening apparition. Its face was hers in superficial appearance, but it was indomitable and lifeless, made of cold stone and steel. There was not a gram of mercy or a trace of care in those features. And as her fragile façade inexorably weakened and decayed, she knew it was only a matter of time before there was not enough substance left to keep her together, and she would shatter, leaving nothing at all to hold back what was beneath.

When she had to leave her room to take the helm or get some food, she assiduously avoided everyone else. Exposure to their thoughts and emotions only further strained her ragged control. No one took much notice of her withdrawal except Simon. He knew something was wrong right away, and he tried everything to convince her to let him help. At first he urged her to let Dr. Harder work with her some more, but she flatly refused, too frightened of what might happen if the other reader got into her mind again. Stymied there, Simon next tried to convince the captain to relieve her until he found out what was going on. In other circumstances she knew Mal would not have hesitated to assent, but right now all that stood between them and the oblivion of uncharted space was her constant monitoring of their position. He could not afford to take her from the helm. Without any other recourse, her brother could only watch in silent helplessness as she continued to retreat from him. His confusion and frustration was palpable and hurt her terribly, but she was growing more convinced that there was nothing he could do. It was too dangerous to let him try. She could not live with herself if he was the one she harmed when her control slipped. But even worse, she knew he would blame himself for failing to help. He would never give up trying to save her. He would sacrifice everything, more than he already had, and it would kill him one way or the other. She could not let that happen.

The days passed on their journey, marked only by the unperturbed march of the digits on the clock and River's ceaseless vigil against the darkness inside. Another shift rolled around and the alarm screamed at her once more. She slapped it off. It took her a few seconds to haul herself upright and then she spent another half minute sitting on the edge of the bed holding her head. It ached with the thick residue of alcohol, but that was something she was already getting used to. Ignoring the unsteady rocking of her cabin, she heaved herself off the bed. She tugged on pair of stained cargo pants, formerly Kaylee's, and a long-sleeve shirt, left her hair in its sleep-styled condition, and climbed out of her bunk to head back on the watch.

"I'm tellin' ya, Mal, someone on this boat's a gorram thief!" she heard Jayne ranting from the bridge as she approached the stairs. "Ain't hardly none o' my stash left. It's pro'bly them two 'fugees."

"Why would they be stealin' your liquor, Jayne?" Mal asked.

"I don't know," Jayne fumed after a moment of thought, "but somebody's takin' it, an' I aim to find out who." He stomped over the bulkhead, descending the stairs in scowling mass. River pressed away from him against the railing and made sure to keep her eyes down until he was well into the foredeck hall. Only then did she glance at his retreating back storming into the dining area. Shuddering, a little sick with both guilt and the hangover, she took the stairs one step at a time. Zoe and Mal were both on the bridge and greeted her with silent nods. Mal got out of his seat at the helm so she could take it.

"So, back to what you were sayin'," the captain returned to whatever conversation had been going on between him and Zoe.

"I think Spider's our best option," said Zoe. "It's the closest, and we're even less likely to run into any Feds than we are on Anson's."

"You might be right, but it's also smaller."

"That means less people to be on the lookout for us."

"Or easier to attract attention. All it takes is one," Mal mentioned, his thoughts pointedly drifting to Chrysabel.

"Sir, we have to make a decision soon," urged Zoe.

"I know," Mal growled at her. "You think I don't know that?"

"Then what are we waitin' on?" Zoe snapped, sharpening her tone as well. They locked gazes, but it was the captain who backed down first. He released a bitter sigh of defeat.

"Will a change in course to Spider affect our fuel reserves, River? River?" River did not realize he was speaking to her at first. Eyes closed, she was preoccupied with fighting a sudden wave of nausea most likely brought on by the hangover. She opened her eyes to find Mal's stern face waiting for an answer. Zoe was watching her, too, but with a more careful look than the captain. She swallowed the sick feeling and willed some concentration into her still dulled mind. She brought up the nav charts and fuel specs and did the calculation.

"No," was her monosyllabic answer.

"Shiny. Get on it, then," Mal instructed as he tromped toward the exit. "Meantime, we're down to quarter rations until further notice. Hopefully that's enough to keep us from resortin' to licking protein bar wrappers from out of the trash," he said and disappeared down the stairs, leaving River and Zoe on the bridge.

River turned her attention to reprogramming the nav computer with their new destination while trying to ignore the first mate's presence. The older woman appeared focused on some details over at the navigator's console, but River felt her attention clandestinely on her. The sense of scrutiny grated against her raw nerves and she could not completely shut it out. Distracted, she made a mistake typing her commands and had to erase the last few keystrokes, frustration causing her to hit the delete key rather harder than necessary. Zoe hazarded a sidelong glance her way.

"You okay?" she asked.

"Yes," River answered curtly, not looking away from her screen. Zoe stood up and moved towards the helm, hands on her hips. River hunched her shoulders against the growing tension and tried to focus on her task.

"Look like you ain't slept this whole time," Zoe assessed, clearly attuned to the notion that something was amiss.

"I'm fine," River repeated, but her words would have hardly convinced even herself.

"Talk to your brother about it?"

"Leave me alone," she snarled with a sharp glare, the harsh retort breaking free from her lips before she could stop it. The vehemence of it took her by surprise. It surprised Zoe as well who stared at her for a space before her expression hardened, eyes growing cool and distant. Anger bubbled and simmered to the surface, evaporating whatever tentative concern she might have been trying to express.

"You might wanna take care who you're talkin' to," she bit with flat and dangerous calm. "I ain't Simon or Kaylee or Jayne. I'm second in command of this ship. You got somethin' you wanna keep to yourself, that's shiny, but I got a right to ask if I feel it might be an issue. I tell the captain you ain't accordin' me due respect and he'll have your ass outta that seat before you can make a squeak of protest." It's his seat, not yours. He should be flyin' her still, the unspoken final thought raked its talons across River's mental awareness, full of bitter anguish. It tore into her overtaxed senses without mercy. "Dong ma?" Zoe snapped, and River cringed a little at the ferocity behind the words. Then, out of nowhere, a violent impulse shoved back hard against the onslaught of the woman's emotions. River's body went rigid. The shift had been so subtle this time that she did not even realize it was happening until it was almost too late. The warm brown tones of Zoe's skin had already dampened down to a charcoal gray. Her outline stood out in sharp relief against the stark and unnatural glare now radiating from the bridge lights. The console and all the other objects around her had lost all their color as well, everything muted down to blues and pales. And then she felt her sense of reality slipping, like that moment between wakefulness and sleep when she was just about to doze off. In a panic, she clawed against her receding awareness. It was like struggling to wake from the paralysis of a nightmare, except that her body was not paralyzed. She was simply not in control of it. Something else was, and it was about to hurt Zoe.

No! she fought back with a mental cry against the urge to leap out of the helm and smash Zoe to the floor. The colors in her vision warred, a sickening dance between the unnaturally faded blues and the normal, familiar hues of the bridge. It took every milligram of her strength but she won out against the violent force and managed to stay her hands on the control console, though they trembled with the effort.

"I said, do you understand me?" Zoe repeated, her voice ringing with a military rebuke.

"Yes," River hissed, voice cracking with strain. Zoe loomed over her for a few more seconds, face dark and fearsome for its lack of expression, before finally turning on her heel and leaving the bridge without another word. River held herself in tense stillness, listening to the woman's retreating footsteps until the sound of a bunk hatch slamming cut them off. Then she released a shaky breath, adrenaline surging. She pried her fists open, fingers aching and palms red where her nails had dug in. She was beyond frightened. Her conditioning had been on the verge of overpowering her and she had no idea if it would it happen again. What if next time it was Kaylee or Simon or Mal? Would she have the strength to resist? It was too much. She buried her face in her hands and sobbed quietly.

When her tears were spent, she stared at the console in front of her for a few empty minutes, the effort of crying having exhausted any emotional and physical strength she had. She knew she could not go on like this, but in every way she could envision, she saw no end to it. She was trapped by her circumstances with no option but to endure as long as she could. She did not reckon that she had much time left, but if she could hold out until they reached Spider she might at least provide herself with some sort of choice. Of course, she had to get them there first, which mean she needed to finish reworking their course. Mechanically, she turned to the nav computer and poured all her mind into the task, glad to not think about anything but numbers for a while.

For the half a dozen-th time, Kaylee ambled around the engine room performing a visual inspection of Serenity's core and compression block. She only gave it half her effort, though, as thanks to the five previous inspections this week, she was pretty sure she knew where every weak coupling, corroded wire, and rusty conduit was. She had taken to sprucing up what she could, but truth be told there was not a whole lot to do. Much of what maintenance could be performed had already been done during the rebuild after the crash. Other issues, like the intermittent hiccup in the core, she could not fix unless they were planetside. Given their fuel reserves, they had already burned as long as they dared, so there was nothing to monitor from that aspect, either. That left her with a glut of unaccustomed free time. Normally she would relish such a boon, seeking out Inara to spend some girl time together, or, more recently, distract Simon from whatever was occupying him at the moment until he paid attention to her, which usually was not too difficult to accomplish. But this time was different. Inara's shuttle was her sanctum no longer. The Companion was living in the passenger dorm out of a leftover trunk with barely a change of clothes to her name. And concern over River once again consumed all of Simon's attention. Even their passengers, who might provide some pleasant conversation at least, seemed reluctant to come out of their room. That was probably Mal's fault, stomping about and acting all grumpy as he was. They were probably afraid he was going to take his anger out on them. But she knew that, when it came down to it, Mal was wai li nei ren.

Still, she never conjured it would be possible on a small Firefly with eight other people, but she was feeling rather lonely. With a morose sigh, she stepped through the engine room bulkhead and into the rear corridor, heading for the dining area. She had not yet eaten her rations for the evening, and her stomach was making a fair protest to remind her of that. She figured she might as well grab Simon's share while she was there and bring it down to him. He most certainly would not have eaten, either. She sighed again, her glumness deepening just a tick. She would be lying to herself if she did not admit she felt a little put out, but she could not blame Simon for devoting all of his recent time to River's welfare. She was just as worried. To everyone else she had always been "little sister," but River was mei mei to her. Once she had gotten to know River, when she was acting mostly normal, Kaylee really started to think of her as a younger sister. Sure, it did not hurt to cultivate the relationship when her brother was as qiao as Simon, but she never had much family, just her ma and pa. It was shiny to have someone near own age for once. Someone with whom she could share stories that might make even Inara blush, and who at the same time could help her re-wire the control module for a helium pressure-fed hydrazine thruster. But something had happened to River since they left Paquin. Kaylee did not know whether it was the run-in with the Alliance or the attack on Dr. Harder, but the River she had grown to love was disappearing. Maybe it was just the new haircut, but she was not the same person. There was something… she hesitated to say "evil," but insidious about her now. It was almost predatory, like an animal in a cage. She thought she had been frightened when River had put down Niska's guards that one time, but even then she was fairly sure River would not hurt her on purpose. Now she was not so certain anymore.

Coming down the stoop into the dining area, she stopped, as there was River at the table, chomping on her protein bar while she stared at nothing. It was not just that she was looking at a blank wall, but the expression on her face was completely bereft of anything, hollow inside as well as out.

"Hey," Kaylee swallowed and managed to greet in a small voice. It merited only the minutest shift of River's head and a twitch of her eyes. That was the greatest extent of recognition Kaylee had gotten these past few days, and she smiled painfully to cover her distress. She did not know what else to say, what else she could say. Ridden with concern and guilt, she quickly snatched food for her and Simon from the galley and hurried back down the rear stairwell. Entering the infirmary, she found Simon there as she expected, busy poring over something on the medical bay's computer screen and comparing it to his handheld Encyclopedia.

"Hey. Brought you somethin' to eat," she said as she came up behind him.

"Mmm. Thanks," Simon muttered with half a turn to her, but not breaking his attention. It was only slightly more acknowledgment than she had gotten from River. Her shoulders slumped.

"Don't forget about it," she told him as she placed the bar on the counter and turned to head out of the room. It was pointless to try to engage him further. She knew she would not get anything out of him until he finally came to bed. Then he would re-hash all of his thoughts and concerns to her before falling asleep, exhausted, only to begin again tomorrow. She always listened attentively despite the fact that most of it was doctor-y stuff she did not have the faintest notion about. It was the most she could do for either him or River, but she did not know how much longer she could keep it up.

She threw herself onto the couch in the commons. Her legs curled up beside her and she wrapped a pillow protectively against her chest, as if it could cushion the ache she felt growing there.

"Mind if we join you?" Anna's delicate request jolted her from the dregs of her thoughts. She glanced up and saw Matthias accompanying his wife into the commons. They had brought their instruments with them. "You just looked like you could use company," Anna smiled kindly.

"Yeah, I reckon I could," Kaylee managed a smile in return.

"It won't bother you if we play little, will it?" Anna asked as she and Matthias took seats.

"Oh, not at all. In fact," Kaylee said, "I'd kinda like that." Anna beamed again, settling her fiddle on her chin. Her face took on a contemplative look as she absently tuned up the instrument.

"Ah, how 'bout this one," her eyes lit up. "It's a song we wrote to give us hope when times weren't so good." She glanced her husband's way, and Matthias gave her an approving smile, that elusive tenderness passing between them.

"Okay," Kaylee nodded, resettling herself to listen. Matthias nodded his head and tapped the face of his guitar to set the beat, and then started in. His instrument rang clear and sharp off the metal walls, a hammered fingerstyle picking pattern over some open chords that was dynamic and expressive. Anna rooted the piece with the steady, rhythmic strokes of her violin. Matthias bent his head over his guitar, eyes closed, and rocked as he submersed himself in the music. Kaylee found herself unconsciously swaying as well. It was like a lullaby, cradling and supportive, but with a resolve and strength that, she realized, actually made her feel hopeful. It was as if the arrangement of the notes into the melody of the piece somehow physically captured that emotion and transferred it to anyone who heard. There was a promise in the song, without words or spoken language, that assured her things would not always be so bad. Better days were ahead and all she had to do was hold on long enough to see things through until she reached them. She shut her eyes and allowed herself to be buoyed by that promise, forgetting for a moment all the troubles that plagued her.

She did not pay any heed to how many minutes passed before the song ended with a wide strum in unison by the two players, but when she opened her eyes, she was pleasantly startled to see that the commons was suddenly much fuller. Inara was standing at the edge of the room near the passenger dorms, while Mal leaned on the railing at the foot of the stairwell. Simon had emerged from the infirmary to listen, his Encyclopedia dangling forgotten in his hand. Jayne, sweat staining his shirt, had wandered in from the cargo bay as the music lured him away from his workout. Most profound of all, though, was River's presence. She was halfway down the stairwell, listening with that signature tilt of her head. Far from vacant now, her eyes registered a contemplative, almost slightly perplexed look, as if she had forgotten what pleasantness sounded like and upon being reminded, discovered she liked it. As Kaylee's eyes traveled around the room, she realized with wonderment that there was something uncanny and far more powerful in that one simple song than the music alone. Even though she could not comprehend what it was, she was many times grateful for its existence.

"That was lovely," she acknowledged to Anna and Matthias, who were also glancing around the room at the audience they had gathered.

"Thank you," Matthias said.

"What was that called?" Simon asked, his voice quiet and just a little tight with some kind of emotion.

"I don't know," Matthias looked at his wife. "We never gave it a name."

"Maybe you should call it 'Serenity,' Kaylee suggested. "It fits her perfectly, don't it, Cap'n?" Mal actually did not disagree. He just nodded, his expression distant and thoughtful.

"Should we do another one?" asked Matthias.

"Yeah," Kaylee encouraged, but before they could start, the intercom interrupted.

"Captain, you need to come up here now," Zoe called from the bridge. The urgency in her voice jarred everyone back to reality. Tension filled the commons, and Mal turned and took the steps two at a time, sweeping past River, who looked almost in pain as the spell the song had woven shattered around them.

"Guess the show's over," Kaylee lamented.

"What is it?" Mal hurried to Zoe's side, half-expecting to see a small Alliance fleet bearing down on them through the viewports. Zoe pointed to the Cortex screen.

"I was browsin' through the newsfeeds to see if there was any mention of us. Came across this." She tapped a small window in one corner of the screen, bringing it to full size.

"… bringing you this news conference which took place earlier today on Osiris," the feed picked up in the middle of the anchor's announcement before the screen switched to a pre-recorded clip. The shot was in front of a large house with an immaculately landscaped yard. A well-dressed man in late middle age with arching brows and dark hair streaked with gray at his temples stood on the porch, flanked by some military officials. His eyes were sunken, heavy with rings, giving his otherwise stately appearance a sallow look. He looked tired, older than his years. There was something familiar about him, but Mal could not quite place it.

"Um, thank you for coming," the man started in a pleasant but nervous baritone, reading from a piece of paper in his hands. He was obviously not a politician or someone used to speaking to the media. "My name is Gabriel Tam, and my purpose today is to make a plea on behalf of my children, Simon and River Tam." A shockwave went through Mal, and the familiarity he noticed before finally hit home. He watched, glued to the screen as Simon and River's father proceeded with his speech. "Two years ago, my daughter was kidnapped from her boarding school in Captial City. My son, her older brother, is the prime suspect in the case. Simon was very close to his sister, and also very protective of her. In the weeks leading up to her disappearance, she sent letters to him which he believed indicated that someone at the school was doing her harm. School officials notified me shortly thereafter that she had been suffering from some kind of anxiety, as is sometimes the case with someone as intellectually gifted as River is. They assured me she was being given the best treatment available, but unfortunately the condition made her confused to a point where she believed she was in danger. Simon did not accept this explanation and was determined to help his sister. I believe that his love and dedication to her welfare were the reasons behind his actions. But as noble as his intent was, it denied River further treatment, which may have made her condition worse." Simon and River's father paused for a breath and looked up from his notes directly into the camera. "This has been an extremely difficult time for me," he started with candor, his shoulders sagging with long-endured suffering. "My children have been missing for two years, and my wife..." he faltered and swallowed away some emotion. "My wife is very ill and does not have much time left. That is one reason why I am appealing to the public for help in finding Simon and River. They should be home with their mother so we can care for her as a family." Gabriel eyes appeared to be welling up, and he looked down at his vest front for a moment, clearly struggling to maintain his composure. With a slight quaver still in his voice, he continued reading from his notes. "The Fugitive Task Force has recently had a break in the case that allowed them to locate my children. They believe Simon and River were picked up by Malcolm Reynolds, a former Independent officer who operates a freelance transport vessel. They also believe that Reynolds may have manipulated my son into believing that the school actually caused River's mental problems. The Task Force has learned that this man may be using my daughter to push an anti-Alliance agenda, convinced that the government is doing secret experiments on children like her. They have other evidence that ties him to the 'Reaver' raids on the Rim, as well as the Miranda wave. Overall, he is an unscrupulous and dangerous criminal. If anyone has knowledge of the whereabouts of Malcolm Reynolds or his ship, a Firefly transport called Serenity, please wave the fugitive hotline immediately. I… I thank everyone for listening, and I hope and pray that my children will return safely and soon. Thank you." While the media barked questions, the military officials quickly shielded him from the array of microphones and cameras and followed his ducking form back into the house.

"Following the initial revelation, Parliament moved with unprecedented speed to address these new details regarding the Miranda wave," the anchor cut back in. "A narrow majority immediately pushed through a resolution authorizing Lawforce and the military the ability to stop and search all Firefly-class vessels in hopes of swiftly locating the fugitives and bringing a close to the case. Representative Jansen Locherbie of Boros was one of several who voted against the resolution. In his own press conference, he expressed his support for the effort to locate the Tam siblings, but also his disappointment that military officials had withheld their knowledge of Captain Reynolds' involvement in the Miranda wave until now. Locherbie criticized the Fugitive Task Force and Alliance High Command for their secrecy in such an important matter and promised to subpoena officials from both groups to appear before his committee hearings. Major General Daniel Kriegel, a specially appointed military liaison leading the investigation for the Fugitive Task Force, clarified in a statement that the connection between the Miranda wave and the Tam case was not discovered until recently. Once known, the information was necessarily withheld to protect the privacy of the family and the integrity of the investigation. Once again, here is a capture of Captain Malcolm Reynolds, the man accused of kidnapping the two siblings, Simon and River Tam, from Osiris. On screen is the wave code for the Fugitive Task Force hotline. If citizens have any knowledge of the transport ship Serenity's location, they are urged to contact the hotline right away. Do not attempt to approach or apprehend the fugitives, as they are considered dangerous." Zoe minimized the window, cutting off the volume. She and Mal heard a noise behind them. They turned and saw River, clinging to the bulkhead, eyes huge and fixated on the Cortex screen. Slowly she sank down to the floor.

"Ba ba?" she whispered.

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