At Mal's summoning, everyone gathered on the bridge to watch the Cortex replay the news conference. By that time, the full profiles of both Mal and Zoe, complete with pictures, birthdates, and social control numbers, had been appended to the end of the feed.
"Well, we're humped," Jayne pronounced matter-of-factly when it was all over.
"Sir, he's right. That's it. The whole Verse is gonna be lookin' for us." Zoe quietly agreed. Mal's gaze burned through the viewports into the space beyond, not really seeing anything. He was searching out that elusive remaining option that he knew had to exist. This was not how it ended, with them standing alone against the Alliance and all the Verse. It had not ended that way in Serenity Valley, nor with Miranda, and he was damned if he would let it end that way now. He brought his eyes back to his first mate.
"No. We'll figure a way out of this," he said, mustering confidence he did not feel. "We keep goin'."
"Where to? We're all gorram fugitives now," Jayne protested.
"Look, the only ones they showed profiles of are me 'n Zoe. Might be they don't know who the rest of you are."
"But what if they do?" Inara asked.
"Even if they don't, it won't be long before they figure it out," Zoe glanced around at everyone.
"Look, we ain't got a choice. We need supplies, or it won't make no difference whether we're fugitives or not 'cause we'll be starvin'. We keep goin' to Spider. Inara, Jayne, and Kaylee can take the shuttle and go pick up the stuff while the rest of us wait out away from pryin' eyes. We'll be fine. We keep flying." Mal purposely ignored any more of his crew's protests because he was desperately trying to convince himself it would work. They would be okay. They had to be. He could not face the alternative.
"They didn't mention anything about Anna or Dr. Harder," Kaylee commented quietly with a look back at the two, standing just outside the bridge.
"Can't say whether or not they know you're here or not," Mal assessed. "Either way, reckon we're more of a danger to you now than you are to us."
"I'm sorry, Captain," Matthias shook his head forlornly.
"You played the hand you was dealt, and the Alliance played theirs. Can't nobody fault you for that," Mal tried to sound more magnanimous than he felt. "We'll drop you off when we get to Spider. Sorry we couldn't help you out more, but we got our hand to deal with, too." He pushed past them into the foredeck, not because he had anything particular to do, but because he had to get away from the bridge and all the doubts. "Best get ourselves prepped," he called behind him, as if there was something to actually prepare for.
"Captain," Simon called to his back. Footsteps came running after him. "Captain! Mal!" The doctor caught up with him near the forward stairs. "Let me contact him. Let me wave my father."
"Did it ever occur to you, with all your learnin', that might be exactly what they want?" Mal stopped and faced Simon fully.
"He has a private wave code," Simon explained.
"So? They'll be monitoring that, too."
"No, I'm pretty sure they won't. He only uses it for business. He only gives it to people who might need to contact him for that reason. He wouldn't expect me to use it."
"Because I'm not supposed to know it." Mal understood the reasoning, but it was still a terrible gamble.
"What do you hope to accomplish by talkin' to him?"
"I've got to explain to him what happened. If he understands, maybe he won't help the Alliance anymore."
"Might put him in a precarious spot. They're likely to take it out on him if he stops cooperatin'," Mal warned.
"I know. But he's already in a precarious spot. Please, Mal. You've got to let me try."
The bridge was sealed off. Only River and the captain were present with Simon, who hovered over the Cortex controls. River huddled in the copilot's chair safely out of sight of the video feed, rocking nervously. Mal stood just behind her. The captain sighed heavily, face abound with misgivings. Even after going over the bridge twice to make sure no subtle clues were lying about to give anything away, he still carped about how dangerous this was. But he had agreed to let Simon give it a try.
"You got one shot, Doc," Mal had acquiesced. "But if they trace it…" he left the sentence unfinished. "They won't," Simon asserted, but his assurance sounded a little hollow even to himself. He really had no idea if his father would have given the Alliance his private business code or not. He was potentially playing with their lives here, and not just his and River's. It gave him a long pause after he entered the wave code, his hand hovering over the screen. Finally he pushed the send command. The paging screen appeared while the signal waited for a response from the other end. Too many doubts to isolate rushed through Simon's thoughts. Maybe no one would answer. Maybe the Alliance was intercepting all waves coming into the house. Or maybe his father had changed the code since he left. His nerves grew ever tighter as the seconds passed without an answer. He stood off to the side out of view of the camera, finger ready to cancel the call just in case. Finally the screen flicked to life.
"Ni hao?" his father's drawn face appeared. Simon waited another second to get a quick look at the background. Gabriel was in his study, door closed, just as it always was when he took business waves. "Hello? Who's there?" he asked again to the blank screen on his end. With a quick breath, Simon stepped into view.
"Simon!" Gabriel gasped. His expression was pure surprise.
"Shhh!" Simon hissed.
"Oh, son! Is it really you?"
"Yes, it's me. Be quiet. Don't let them hear you." Gabriel's face turned worried.
"Are you okay? Can you speak freely?" he lowered his voice, misinterpreting Simon's concern.
"Yes, I'm fine. It's not me I'm worried about. I don't want the Feds to hear you. Are they monitoring this code?"
"No, I didn't think that… how did you get it?" Simon breathed an internal sigh of relief. At least he had been right about that.
"It doesn't matter. Look, we need to talk. The government is using you to get to River. They lied to you." Gabriel's face took on a pained expression.
"Simon, I don't know what le se this Captain Reynolds filled your head with, but he's a fanatic fighting a war that ended years ago. The Alliance and the Academy people explained everything to me."
"They want to take River back."
"Of course they do. It's where she belongs. It's where she needs to be. Simon, she's sick. That's why…"
"They did it to her, Dad! At the Academy. They tortured her there," Simon fairly shouted, surprising even himself a little with his vehemence. His father blinked in mild shock as well, and then his face turned stern.
"That's nonsense. Whatever you think happened, or whatever River told you happened, it was probably a product of her illness."
"They cut into her brain. I saw the scars. I imaged her myself."
"Well, if they did, I'm sure they did it for a good reason. To help her," Gabriel's certainty wavered, but it did not buckle. Simon could hardly believe his father could convince himself that what they did to River had any legitimate medical purpose whatsoever. Then again, he had not seen River since before the Academy.
"You haven't seen what it's done to her. She's not the River you sent them four years ago."
"Where is River?" Gabriel shifted topics anxiously. "Is she with you? Let me see her."
"She's here and she's safe. That's why she's staying here," Simon answered, starting to grow angry at his father's refusal to listen to him.
"Simon, you have to bring her home. You're a doctor. You know she needs treatment."
"No," Simon refused. A wave of angry emotions broke through Gabriel's calm for a moment, and Simon prepared for the rebuke, but it did not come. Instead, the anger fell away and his father dropped his chin to his chest with a heavy sigh. When he looked up again he had changed. He was more careworn, with wrinkles standing out. It struck Simon how much older he looked after just four years.
"Son, it's not just that. It's…" his voice failed. "Your mother needs you here. Both of you."
"What's wrong with her?" Simon asked gently, forgetting his own anger for a moment as well.
"She's dying, Simon." The anguish was so clear on his father's face that Simon could almost feel it through the screen. "She got sick a few years ago, right after you disappeared. But when you were listed as a fugitive, people didn't trust us anymore. We… we couldn't get treatment. I even lost my position on the board. We've got enough money to live on for now, but…" his words died away. "Simon, you and River have to come home. I don't know how much longer she has." An impossible storm of emotions built inside Simon. His father took the silence as consideration and tried to convince him further. "Simon, please. The hope that they would find you kept her going for longer than anyone expected. She would want to know you and River are safe. And after…" he left out the unspeakable thought, "after you're back, we can try to get things back to normal."
"Things will never be normal again," Simon shook his head.
"Of course they will. River can get the help she needs, and we can see about getting you reinstated at the hospital."
"It won't be too much trouble. Everyone understands that you did what you did because you thought to protect River. If we put some money in the right hands, and you'll be able to pick up where you left off."
"Stop it with your xiao suan pan!" he shouted at the screen. "Do you really think I care about going back to the hospital?"
"Simon! That was your career, your life. It's what you always wanted."
"No!" Simon exploded. "It's what you wanted! I wanted it because you wanted it! You always had plans for me. All you ever saw was me. You never saw her. You never saw how extraordinary she was. Neither of you did. Even when she was crying out for help, begging for you to see while they tortured her, you didn't see it. You were too concerned with my 'reputation' to notice. You told me to forget about it. Well I couldn't." His father's face collapsed in devastation at the accusations, but Simon did not care. The resentment he had unconsciously built up broke free in a torrent he could not stop. "I gave it all up for her, because you couldn't see. But she was gone when I got to her. They took her away. Well, now you're xia xia you xu. Tell Mom I'm sorry. We're not coming home." Simon cut off the wave. He stood in front of the blank screen, breathing hard, his hands actually shaking. He could not see straight. He could not believe his father could shi er bu jian to everything that happened. Nothing had changed. He had not been able to convince him then, and it was foolish to think he could do it now. Fists clenched, he flung open the bridge door and stormed out.
Mal followed Simon to the doorway but halted there. Kaylee was waiting at the bottom of the stairs and reached for the doctor, but he brushed past her without noticing. He disappeared behind the dining room bulkhead. A chair crashed into something and then he reappeared, continuing down the rear corridor and towards the lower deck. Tearing up, Kaylee started to go after him, but Mal put a restraining hand on her shoulder.
"Let him be a while," he advised. He had seen Simon angry. He had seen Simon upset. He had never seen Simon like this. It was a mite frightening, even to him. "See to her," he nodded towards River, still on the bridge. The girl was sobbing silently in the copilot's chair, knees drawn up, head buried in her arms. Kaylee went to her and embraced her. The two cried together like sisters.
Late that evening, Jayne crept out of his bunk. He snuck a glance towards the bridge and could see the back of Mal's head at the helm. Looking the other way, he saw the foredeck was empty. Confident no one else was around, he wandered towards the dining area, pretending to be doing nothing in particular. In actuality, he was scheming to catch a thief. He purposely left his liquor stash unlocked tonight hoping it would be a sight too tempting to resist. The dining area was empty, too, so he went straight to his cubby in the galley. It was wide open. He smirked.
"Gotcha." Removing his boots, he crept down the rear stairwell, making not a sound on the stairs. A swift glance around the commons told him it was unoccupied, so he made his way towards the guest rooms. On tiptoes, he leaned his ear against the door of the Harder's room. Nothing. Frowning, he looked to Inara and Simon's rooms on either side, shrugged, and decided to give them a listen, too. Nothing there, either. Grumbling and grumpy at having been foiled so far, he wandered into the cargo bay, scratching his head. He thought of Mal on the bridge, realizing the captain could easily be hiding a flask of whiskey while he sat on watch. Or maybe it was Zoe. She might have taken to it to ease her pain, and she was not one to let anyone see her hurt.
"Hi, Jayne," the voice took him off guard and he nearly leaped out of his socks. His head shot up to where it had come from, and he discovered River sitting on the catwalk above, feet dangling over the side. A cup and his whiskey bottle were residing right beside her.
"Girl, not only're you scarin' me, you're stealin' my whiskey," he glowered at her.
"Sorry," she apologized with a sloppy smile. Then she poured another round from the bottle, raised her cup in salute, and threw back a shot. She slammed the cup on the catwalk grating, eyes pinched shut, wobbling unsteadily on her perch.
Gorram it! Jayne swore inside. She was drunk. And then a trickle of fear shivered up his spine. She was very drunk. And sitting on the edge of the catwalk with four meters of empty space below her. He had a sudden notion things could get very tricky very fast if he was not careful. Slowly he started climbing the stairs, keeping a cautious eye on her.
"I don' mean to steal, but it's the only thing tha' helps me sleep," she turned her bleary eyes on him and slurred.
"Uh huh," Jayne nodded, coming slowly towards her. She grabbed the flask and poured another cup.
"Nightmares," she mumbled. "Nightmares all th' time." She swallowed another shot and stared straight ahead.
"Ain't you s'posed to be on watch right now?" he asked gruffly, because it was the only thing he could think of to say.
"Cap'n took over for me."
"Oh." Silence hovered between them. Her shoulders twitched and rocked slightly, lip trembling. Then she sunk her head in her hands, sobbing outright. Jayne towered over her, unsure what to do. He shifted uncomfortably at her tears and looked around, wishing Inara or Kaylee, or even Mal were here. He was not much good with words, but despite his discomfort, he felt like he should say something.
"Uh… look here, now. Things is gonna be all right." Well, that was a damn fool thing to say, he derided himself as soon as the words were out, but before he could think of something better, River wrapped her arms around his legs and buried her face in his trousers. "Hey! Watch it," he wavered as he tried to jerk away, but she held tight. "River, gorram it…" he grumbled, but her grip was like iron shackles. He did not want to shake her free lest she fall and maybe drag him with her, so he stood there, stiff and uncomfortable, feeling her hot tears soak into his pants. How long she held him like that he was not sure. When her sobbing finally died down, she lifted her head and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. He scowled at the tear-soaked stain on his pant leg.
"Ma ma," River sniffed, not noticing his displeasure at all. "She's dying. And I can't go to her. I can't. And Simon was so angry." She broke into sobs again, burying her head in her hands in anguish.
Jayne glanced down at her, frail and tormented, and amidst his anger at her pilfering and irritation at turning his trousers into her own personal hankie, he could not help but feel sorry for her. The poor girl had just learned her mother was dying. That was enough to send anyone to the bottle. Hell, if it has been his own mother, he would have… he stopped. The sight of a plump woman with rosy, crinkled cheeks and bright eyes, and a coif of red hair fading into gray fell into his mind's eye. Then he saw her lying on a bed, skeletal and ghostly pale, alone with darkness all around her. A lump formed in his throat. There were no words to describe what he envisioned, or maybe there were and he just did not have enough learning to know them. But as bad as it was, that was only his imagination. He reckoned he did not possess the wherewithal to conjure what River was feeling. He stared down at her again, unmoving, frowning slightly. A peculiar tightness worked into his chest. What could he do? What could he possibly say to ease her sorrow? His earlier words seemed that much more stupid. He glanced down at his pants, the watery stains slowly drying, and, for once, he took all the advice ever given to him and kept his mouth shut. Instead, awkward and halting, he laid a big hand on top of River's head. After a few moments more, he gently leaned her against him and held her there. He waited patiently for her to spend her tears, despite the grating starting to cut into his feet from standing on the catwalk in just socks. After some minutes, her sobs retreated to an occasional sniffle and she finally lifted her head off of him a little, giving him a chance to peel his aching dawgs from the spot where they were taking root. Meanwhile, she moved for the bottle again. Jayne reacted quickly and intercepted it on its way to fill her cup.
"Now, I think you've had enough," he admonished. He tried to take it from her, but her grip was like a vise. She resisted and he was almost afraid he was going to have to physically pry her fingers off of it. Finally she gave it up. He set it back down on the catwalk, out of her reach. "Now, time to get you to bed," he said. That was the best thing, he had reasoned in the interim. Let her sleep it off. "C'mon," he urged, reaching beneath her arm to lift her. She nodded, compliant, and rose with his assistance, but once on her feet she staggered and collapsed into him.
"Whoa, there," he caught her in his arms.
"Sorry," she mumbled, cheek smooshed against his chest.
"'S okay," he said, but inside he was wondering how in the hell he was going to get her up the stairs. He stood her upright, one hand supporting her shoulder. He looked her slight frame up and down and realized that she could not weight all that much. Hell, he was benching a hundred and fifty kilos, and she was probably not even a gram over fifty. "Here," he threw one arm over his shoulder. Then he bent down, looped his elbow behind her knees, and scooped her up.
"Than' you," she whispered as he cradled her, her head cushioned against his big bicep. He hmph-ed a little, but carefully carried her up the stairs. She was out by the time he reached her room. Somehow he managed to finagle them both down the ladder without falling. He laid her gently on her bed and dimmed the lights. Then, as quiet as possible, he climbed the ladder and shut the hatch. Satisfied that he had not woken her up, he turned away from her bunk and ran nose-first into Mal.
"Gaah!" he jumped back in involuntary surprise.
"What are you doin'?" Mal demanded with a dangerous scowl.
"Gorram it, Mal! You scared the livin' crap outta me!" Jayne cursed, hitting Mal with a dirty look. Mal glanced at River's door, and then back at him.
"I'll ask you again, what were you doin'?" his tone grew softer and more ominous.
"I's puttin' her to bed is all," Jayne growled. "Girl's drunker n' a monkey. She's the one been stealin' my whiskey." Mal blinked several times, his expression going blank.
"Oh," he mumbled after a moment's confused pause. Jayne brushed past him awkwardly, moving down the hall.
"Yeah, well, you best be keepin' an eye on her," he advised. His face twisted oddly as he stopped and turned back to the captain. "Look Mal, Lord knows you and me and Zoe's gone and gotten ourselves soused on more'n one occasion when we been feelin' low. But the way she was holdin' onto that bottle, it was like it was her only friend in the Verse. She needed it. You know that's a bad way. I'm keepin' my liquor locked up from now on." Mal slowly nodded in agreement. He knew well enough that when Jayne started worrying about someone else's drinking behavior, it was time to take notice. But he was still looking a little befuddled.
"Why'd you do that, Jayne?" he asked. "I thought you didn't like her." Jayne rubbed his chin on his shoulder, all uncomfortable again.
"Aw, hell. It ain't that I don't like her. When she's behavin' normal, she's fine. And I know I owe her somethin' for savin' our skins from them Reavers. But she ain't always normal." He paused. "She was talkin' about her Ma, and how she won't be able to see her. Well, it got me to thinkin'. If my Ma was dyin', ain't nothin' in the Verse'd keep me from goin' to her in her time of need. But she can't go." He looked at Mal, a real distressed expression on his face now. "It ain't right, Mal. It ain't right." He went silent again, pensive. Then he slowly turned and walked back towards the galley.
River tossed viciously in her sleep. She had tried to drown everything with her alcoholic binge, but that did not stop the nightmares this time. They were black and terrible. From her bed, her mother cried out for her with a heartbreaking, plaintive wail. At the same time, Reavers closed in about her helpless form. Then her father and Simon rose up before her, growing to towering proportions. They glared at each other, their fury licking like glowing fire around each of them. She was bound and strapped down to the exam chair in the infirmary wearing nothing but a hospital gown, watching all of this happen beyond her control. And then the horrendous visions all turned to face her at once. Her mother's sorrow became bitter scorn. Simon and her father focused their rage on her, practically searing her eyes with their intensity. The Reavers also began to advance on her, their mutilated faces quivering with blood and lust as they relished the knowledge that they would soon taste her flesh. The nightmare figures multiplied, more and more mounting around her. Dr. Harder, the captain, Zoe, doctors from the Academy, even the man she had seen dead on the floor of the galley not long ago. She could see his face, and she knew now that she had killed him. Him and how many more others. She did it because they asked her to. They made her. She did not have a choice. Jerking against her restraints, she threw her head back and let loose a wail that was half scream and half sob. Behind the multitudes closing in, she caught a sense of the prowling presence, waiting. It did not care about any of the people surrounding her. It did not care about her, either. It did not care who it had to kill or hurt, or how many. It simply did what was necessary to complete the mission. The mission was all that mattered. The mission. The mission! The epiphany hit her like a torrent just as she was about to be torn apart by her mind's terrible conjurations. Suddenly they were all gone. Everything disappeared and she was alone in perfect, silent blackness. The only other object visible was a mirror hovering in front of her. With her eyes she traced her face in its silver surface. At first her reflection was familiar, but then it swiftly changed. The differences were subtle but apparent. Her jaw tightened, drawing her lips into a cruel, thin line. Dangerous shadows played across her brow, as if something beneath the skin was shifting and altering the light. Cold, emotionless eyes stared back at her, piercing without remorse into her soul. But instead of turning from them as before, this time she stared right back. She stepped towards the mirror, slowly, purposefully, not shifting her gaze. Her reflection also moved forward, almost eager in its movements compared to her. Frightened but determined, she stopped a few centimeters from the mirror's surface. The figure behind it pressed its palms against the glass, and she could almost feel the pressure against her mind. I have a mission for you, she said to it. On the corners of its lips, the barest trace of a grin formed.