River stared through the bridge viewports at Anson's World, just a silver sliver in the blackness. On her console, the Cortex screen flickered and danced with the latest newsfeeds regarding the Alliance's search for Serenity. Her attention was not on the planet, though, or the screen, but within. Just beneath the surface of her thoughts, Ariel stirred. That was what she had decided to call the secondary personality lurking inside her. It seemed an appropriate name for her alter-ego, given recent events. Naming it was also a key component of her fledgling theory to take control of it. Facing a fear, acknowledging it, was the only way to overcome it, and she had learned very rapidly that she would have to do just that if she was to have any chance at succeeding in her plan. She knew it was futile to pretend she was not afraid, but she could not give in to the fear. If she hesitated, if she doubted her conviction for even a microsecond, she would lose control. Ariel was incredibly strong. Only a determined resistance and possibly the dulling effect of the alcohol had saved her when she first made the deal in her dream, or hallucination, or whatever it had been. And now that she had accepted Ariel and somehow bypassed the programmed triggering mechanisms that restricted her influence, she had to be more vigilant and fearless than ever.
Built without the inhibitions and mores of normal human beings, Ariel was not bound by the limits that kept most people in check. Only one thing concerned her- the mission. So, for a few hours when she should have been sleeping off the drunk, River had forced herself to stand in front of her mirror and call up Ariel, training her to obey. She accustomed herself to the cold eyes and affectless expression that took over her face whenever Ariel's persona was active. Then she would command Ariel to stand down. It was like a master teaching his dog to heel- a vicious, snarling, violent dog that did not have a shred of consideration for her authority. River hated that analogy, but she saw it was apropos. And, just like a dog, if Ariel sensed fear or weakness, she would not respond.
Over those brief few hours she gained confidence that she could control the persona, but the sensation of the transition never grew less unsettling. When Ariel took the foreground, she fell backwards out of herself. Everything became more distant as it was filtered through Ariel's awareness, which was as stark and sterile a place as the Academy that created her. Ariel felt emotions, but they were of little consequence. She ignored them or turned them to her advantage as necessary. Although ashamed of it, River actually envied her for that. When she took control again, there was that not-quite-physical sensation of pushing forward and she would shudder and see herself behind her eyes once more. The thing was, now that she had activated Ariel, she was constantly aware of her, and vice versa. They were like two people who had never met each other until now suddenly discovering they had been living in the same house the entire time. It took a significantly larger amount of River's mental concentration than before to keep that awareness at bay, but it was never completely gone. Right now she sensed her alternate self regarding her with a mixture of amusement and disdain. Ariel did not like River being in control. She was used to operating independently. She had no regard for River's concerns about her friends on Serenity. Those thoughts were extraneous and distracting. She viewed River as a liability, and thus a potential threat to the mission's success. Unfortunately, she had no choice in the matter. They were in this together.
River blinked her eyes, refocusing them on the blackness of reality beyond the viewports. She could feel Ariel urging her, yearning to be freed so she could take charge and do what was necessary. River took a deep breath and closed her eyes.
No, she mouthed the word without speaking it aloud. It was her decision. She could not let Ariel influence her. She was going to do it her way. Ariel simmered, but stayed in check. However, her alter-ego was right about one thing. It was time to move. River took another deep breath in final preparation. Swiveling in the helm, she looked down the stairs into the foredeck hall. Nothing stirred. Beyond the dining area, she could see a distant light in the engine room where Kaylee was still attending to the bad power relay. The captain was not to be seen, and a quick mental scan told her everyone else in the foredeck cabins was asleep. Now we go. She pushed herself out of the helm and moved silently down the stairs and through the foredeck. She had dressed in the best she had in terms of tactical wear- a light, long-sleeved t-shirt beneath a hooded sweatshirt, and some cargo pants formerly belonging to Kaylee. She had taken a hint from Inara as well and further disguised herself by putting her hair up. She hoped it was enough. The galley was the first stop, to gather some rations for the trip. Several handfuls of protein bars disappeared from the freshly stocked cubbies into her oversized pockets. Then she slipped around the corner leading to the forward stairs and made her way to the hold. Red emergency lighting was all the illumination she had, but she knew her way even in the dark. Sure as a cat, she descended to the main floor and hurried to the wall where the weapons locker hung. She grabbed a pistol and holster and strapped them to her thigh, then stashed a few spare magazines in her other pockets. Back up the stairs, she crept towards one of the shuttles. She unlatched the airlock and disappeared inside, sealing it behind her.
The faint but solid clunk of metal against metal rang dully from somewhere in the ship. Kaylee stopped her work and slid out from beneath the engine, grasping for a screwdriver as she did so. The memories of a particularly terrifying encounter the last time she heard odd noises late at night was suddenly very fresh in her mind. "Cap'n?" she called, unable to keep the faint tremor from her voice. "Cap'n, you there? River?" she tried next, knowing the girl was on the watch. Her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth and she tried to swallow. Still gripping the screwdriver, she cautiously rose and padded to the engine room door. She peered down the hall, but no one was around. Although muffled, the noise had been distinct enough to draw her attention in the unaccustomed silence of the ship, so she cocked an ear to listen for it again. Nothing stirred in the tomb-like quiet. Apprehension still clinging to her, she braved the unknown and walked quickly through the dining area, eyes alert in the reddened darkness for any movement that was not supposed to be there. On the foredeck, the captain's hatch was closed. With a quick look to the bridge, she discovered River was not at the helm either. Feeling eerily alone now, she forced a little bit of rationality against her fear and ascended to the bridge conjuring that perhaps River had been running more diagnostics, found something else, and had gone to investigate. Moving to the control console, she paged through the displays, looking for anomalies that might indicate the source of the sound. It was only when she came across the shuttle docking display that she finally recognized the noise she had heard. Forgetting everything else, she bolted from the bridge.
"Simon!" she shouted, almost slipping on the rungs as she climbed down the hatch into her bunk. "Simon, wake up! Simon!" Kaylee reached her bedside and started shaking the doctor's sleeping form rather violently.
"Hunh… wha… what?" Simon's mouth could barely form words at first.
"What?" Simon squinted, rising up on his elbow. "What do you mean?"
"River's gone," Kaylee repeated. "She took one of the shuttles and left." Now Simon was wide awake. He jerked upright in the bed, staring at her. "I heard a noise and I went lookin'," Kaylee continued explaining. "She wasn't on the bridge, so I checked the readouts and saw the shuttle's gone." Simon's expression registered nothing but despair and horror for a second, and then he snapped into action.
"Where's Mal?" he asked, leaping to the floor and throwing a shirt on over his bare torso.
"I tried his bunk first, but he didn't answer. I don't know where else he'd be," Kaylee said.
"He's got to be around somewhere," Simon uttered in irritation. He started up the ladder but stopped suddenly. "Unless…" he looked over his shoulder at her, fear dawning in his eyes. Kaylee gasped and put a hand over her mouth, realizing what he was thinking. Simon scrambled up the hatch with renewed urgency. Kaylee was close behind. "We have to wake everyone. Can you get the lights on?" he asked her. She nodded and darted back towards the bridge while Simon started banging on bunks.
Mal and Inara both sat up, startled by the sudden pounding on the door.
"Inara! Wake up! We got a situation," Zoe called from outside. Sharing a horrified glance, the two leaped over each other trying to get out of the bed.
"Where the hell's my…"
"Here, quick…" They fumbled about the room in whispers, searching for their discarded articles of clothing. Mal collected as much as he could find and wadded it into a ball to cover his exposed bits and pieces, while Inara threw on one of her robes.
"Get rid of her!" he mouthed, stabbing his finger at the door.
"How?" she mouthed back. Mal threw up his arms, then quickly dropped them, reddening sharply. Inara shook her head and went to the door. She cracked it. Mal pressed himself against the wall, hoping to he was invisible from that angle.
"What's going on?" Inara asked with a perfect tone of faux innocence.
"River's gone," Zoe relayed tersely. "Took off in a shuttle. Can't find the captain neither."
"I'll be right out," she replied after an instant of hesitation. "Just let me get something on." She closed the door on Zoe's retreating footsteps.
Mal had all kinds of consternation written on his face after hearing that.
"What the hell is she thinkin'? Gorram that girl," he muttured. His current situation was momentarily forgotten until he glanced at Inara again. Her chin was down, eyes lowered and almost apologetic. He looked down as well, embarrassment burning the roots of his hair.
"Sorry," he mumbled, followed by a long and excruciating silence. "Guess I should, uh… yeah."
"Yes. I'll just…" Inara almost spoke over him, but she trailed off as well. Their eyes met just slightly and both blushed. Mal turned his back and started dressing, while he heard Inara do the same.
"You should go first, then I'll slip out when the coast is clear," he said while buttoning up his shirt. He turned just slightly and caught glimpse of her naked form, turning away before she saw him.
"What are you going to tell them?" Her question was guardedly casual, but still loaded with meaning.
"Just, uh… I'll… make somethin' up," he said as he righted his suspenders. He turned around. She was fully dressed as well now, though she did not meet his eyes still. It tore at something in him that she would not. "Inara…" he said more tenderly than he had intended, but the emotion was too honest for him to hide. She finally looked up. Her face was full of confusion and embarrassment, but he thought that beneath all of that he saw something else. It was just a little glimmer, maybe of hope, maybe of something else. He did not know what to say, so he just smiled awkwardly. She smiled a little, too.
"I'll go," she said, breaking the moment. Cracking the door again with a cautious glance, she slipped out. Mal waited a few seconds, listening. He heard no voices or footsteps outside, so he risked poking his head out. The commons area and cargo hold were well lit now, and he saw Zoe moving briskly about in the hold. He ducked back inside and waited a few more tense seconds before attempting to look again. This time he saw nobody, so he strode out towards the commons.
"What's all the ruckus?" he asked a little too loudly as he stepped through the bulkhead and into the hold.
"Mal, where have you been?" Everyone looked startled to see him except Inara, who was trying hard not to look at him.
"Just, uh, catchin' some shut-eye in my bunk," he said, though he felt that neither his face nor his words were very convincing.
"We knocked, and you didn't come out," Simon said.
"Well, I was sleepin'," Mal retorted, using irritation to mask his lie. "Then I heard all you makin' noise. Someone wanna tell me what's up?" he pretended as if he was not aware of the situation already.
"River's gone, sir," Zoe informed him.
"Took Shuttle Two. Kaylee heard her go. I tried to track her but that's the one we took the transponder out of. She also broke into the armory. A pistol and some clips are missing." A frown overtook Mal's face.
"What the hell's that girl got on her mind?"
"Whatever it is, doesn't look like she intended for us to follow her," Zoe relayed. "She manually programmed a course into the nav computer before she left."
"What the hell's on Salisbury?" Jayne scoffed.
"Nothin'," answered Zoe. "That's probably why she chose it. Didn't want to leave us sittin' ducks for the Alliance," she said with just a touch of respect.
"So where did she go, then?" Kaylee wondered.
"Maybe she went off to see her Ma," Jayne suggested, almost offhand.
"In the shuttle? Ain't no way, Jayne. That thing'd run outta fuel before she got out of orbit," Mal discounted that notion. Jayne shrugged, managing to look a little hurt that his idea was struck down so easily.
"Oh no," Simon uttered, sinking back onto some empty crates.
"What is it?" Kaylee caught his arm, concern rippling over her features.
"That is what she's going to do."
"What is?" asked Mal.
"She's going to try to get to Osiris to see our mother."
"She wouldn't…" Mal looked hard at Simon.
"I think she would," Simon countered.
"See, told ya," Jayne interjected, vindicated.
"You think she's gonna try to find passage?" Mal asked, tracking Simon's thoughts. The doctor nodded.
"It'd be suicide," Zoe stated.
"Captain, we've got to go after her. There's no way she'll make it. The Alliance will catch her," Simon pleaded. Mal nodded, face hardening with resolve.
"Kaylee, how close are you to havin' us up and runnin' again?"
"Um, I'm almost done. Just need a little more time."
"Well get it done on the double. We ain't got much to spare. Zoe, go with her. Help her with whatever she needs." Zoe nodded and the two women headed up the stairs for the engine room. "Jayne, you're with me. We'll see if we can chase her down in the other shuttle." Mal marched up the stairs towards the catwalk.
"If we can't catch her 'fore she's planetside, we ain't gonna find her. And most likely the Alliance'll be on us, too," said Jayne, falling into step behind him.
"You sayin' you wanna sit this one out?" Mal challenged over his shoulder. Jayne twisted out a grin.
The shuttle's engines whined down as the dust cloud from its landing dissipated. River ran through the power-down procedure automatically. Once everything was dark, though, she did not make to leave the cockpit right away. She sat there, closing her eyes and breathing deep, fighting the fatigue and steeling her nerves for what she knew was ahead. Ariel waited, a tiger crouched in her subconscious jungle licking her lips.
I can do this. I have to do this, she repeated to herself. After a moment, she opened her eyes and rose from the pilot's seat. She descended into the bustle of the port Spider's largest city and sealed the shuttle. Outside, the mental noise of the crowd made her cringe, but she held on, forcing herself to endure it or lose control. She figured she could find a willing ship to take her to Osiris easily enough. She had some platinum which she hoped would be enough to cover the fare. However, Ariel, with cold and calculating precision, was already exploring other options. It would be no hard task to rob a few passers-by and collect more money. Or she could just hijack a ship. However, that option hinged on finding a reasonably fast ship with an inattentive and not well armed crew she could easily dispatch. Although she knew it might be unavoidable to protect herself, the notion of purposefully harming anyone simply as a means to achieve her goal turned River's stomach. Ariel did not seem to share in those qualms, though. Her alter-ego continued pressing for more direct action until she was interrupted by an electronic billboard blaring its message.
"Sheenaman's… Sheenaman's… Sheenaman's… Sheenaman's!" a choir trumpeted at increasing volume behind the image of a smarmy-looking character with a wide smile plastered on the screen. "Sheenaman's Used Ships, Parts, and Supplies" the words flashed beneath it. Inside, River felt Ariel grin. She had an idea.
Miles Sheenaman hurried across the dusty, stony field that served as his lot. Perspiration broke on his brow, and he felt the armpits of his shirt starting to soak through. He took aim for the slight figure in the hooded sweater making a beeline for the small ship in the far corner of the lot. When he was just a few meters away, the figure suddenly whipped around to face him, causing him to jerk to a halt. He was even more surprised to find the face of a young woman greeting him beneath the hood. She was waifish, her eyes dark and intense, with something that looked almost animalistic in them. His attention lingered on the firearm at her hip. He wondered if she was perhaps strung out on drops, but he did not notice any of the other telltale signs in her behavior. He licked his lips nervously, not sure what to expect, but summoned up his most suave demeanor and engaged her. "Howdy, miss. Lookin' for a ship, I assume?"
"Yes," her response was flat.
"Great!" he put on the zealous salesman's mask. "What did you have…"
"That one," she pointed and continued walking towards the ship she had been heading for.
"Well, I guess the young lady knows what she wants," Sheenaman chuckled, almost jogging to keep his ample bulk up with her. "That one is seventy-five hundred credits."
"I'm not buying it. I'm taking it," the girl announced, and before he could react she had her pistol out of its holster and leveled at his head.
After the first few seconds of paralyzing, instinctual fear passed and his head did not explode, Sheenaman opened his eyes. The girl still had the gun pointed in his face steady as ever, but her expression was twisted into discomfort. Her hesitation showed him that she clearly had never done this before, while conversely this was far from his first time being in such a position. In his twenty-plus years of making money through one mode or another, he had run across about every conceivable criminal element the Verse had to offer. But when it came down to it, there were only two types: those who were willing to take what they wanted, and those who were not. There were far more of the latter than the former. Some were just thugs, bullies who relied on fear and threats and the timidity of their targets to extort their gains, but without any real muscle to back them up. Sometimes they were just kids, like this one, trying to make a name for themselves. Others were just plain desperate folk driven beyond the restraint of the law by their circumstances. Wherever the girl fit on that spectrum, she probably expected him to shrivel up and beg for his life. That put the advantage squarely in his favor. And that meant, if he played it right and worked her a little bit, he just might get something out of the deal, or at the very least get her to walk away empty-handed. And Miles Sheenaman was nothing if not a deal-maker.
Smoothing down his lapels and wiping the sweat off his brow with a handkerchief from his pocket, he recovered some of his cordiality and mustered a fake smile.
"Whew. Gave me quite a scare there, miss. That's a nice-lookin' piece you got," he complimented her gun while folding his brow mop. "But why don't you just put that away now and we'll talk some real business."
"I don't want to hurt you," she told him with an edge that was more anxious than threatening.
"Oh, I can see that, I can see that," Sheenaman nodded. "We both know you woulda shot me by now if you really meant to." Doubt passed through the girl's eyes and he took pleasure in seeing her disturbed that he had deduced that much about her already.
"I need that ship," she reiterated, trying hard to maintain her failing mask of menace. She took a step back, though her gun never left its mark. Sheenaman's nerves fluttered, but he held his cool. She was trying to bluff her way out. Best keep her doubting and uncertain, lest she get too desperate or scared and do something crazy.
"All right, all right, just take it easy," he raised his hands in mock acquiescence. "However, you might think twice 'bout makin' off with one of my boats. All my ships are coded and tagged for easy recovery. Can't fire a one of 'em up unless you got the lockout code. And even if you did manage to override that, it won't be any trouble for Lawforce to track you down." A rapid-fire mix of emotions crossed her face, but she kept the gun trained on him.
"Give me the code and tag override," she demanded.
"Now, now, miss," he wagged his finger at her in mock admonition. "If you're not interested in dealin', I suggest you leave before Lawforce gets here. They catch you holdin' me up on the security monitor and they'll be here in a jiffy." Best investment I ever made, he congratulated himself inside. Of course, being under constant surveillance by the authorities also had its disadvantages, which was why he had bribed the contractor who installed the system to include a bypass through which he could insert a loop of some non-descript footage when a deal required more discretion. But if it had not already done so by now, the security software would soon identify the weapon in the girl's hand and sound the alarm. Her eyes made an apprehensive sweep around the lot, ostensibly looking for the security cameras or approaching Lawforce ships. Sheenaman had not planned it, and maybe it was a rash move on his part, but when the opportunity presented itself and her attention was momentarily distracted, he lashed out at her.
With a swipe of his hand, he slapped her gun aside and threw his bulk into her considerably smaller frame. She shouted and lurched backwards, falling to the ground and getting pinned under his weight. She cried out and struggled, but he was too heavy.
"What's the matter, lian ren?" he sneered close to her face. "No so interested in what I got to offer anymore?" Her writhing struggles beneath him and the adrenaline rush of his attack stirred some primal desire inside. He leaned off of her a little, pinning both her arms to the dirt. His eyes roved over her greedily. There was not much of her to be had, but what was there was mighty appealing. Besides, after what she had just tried to pull on him, she surely deserved whatever she had coming to her. He licked his lips again. "You let me have somethin' o' yours, and I might just reconsider reportin' you to the authorities. That's a fair deal, don'cha think?" At his remark, her twisting face met his leering eyes and a rapid, disconcerting change overtook her. All expression drained away from her as if it never existed. The desperate fear and the fierce grimace on her lips as she fought against him vanished, leaving behind a smooth sheen of nothing. Sheenaman could have been looking on the face of a statue chiseled in granite, except for her eyes. They flashed with predatory zeal reserved for that other type of criminal. Feeling his triumphant confidence running like water down into his bowels, Miles Sheenaman suddenly realized he was in very deep trouble.
Either she had been too distracted keeping Ariel at bay to sense it, or perhaps it was a spur-of-the-moment reaction with little forethought on his part, but the salesman's attack took River by surprise. The man threw himself at her, knocking her gun clean out of her hand before she could jerk the trigger even by accident. He hit her like a sack of wet cement and she went down beneath him. Panicked, her plan going horribly awry now, she flailed and fought with all her might, but he was too big. And as the realization of what he intended to do to her hit her mind and her ears at the same time, she let go of her last scraps of resistance and let Ariel take control.
Sheenaman must have noticed the change, because in the instant before she struck, he was already pushing himself away from her. It did not matter, though. Ariel was too quick. Her knee came up into his groin and sent him rolling to the side with a wail. She sprung up like a gymnast and swiped the gun from the dusty earth while the salesman managed to clamber to his knees, still clutching his private parts. Ariel took one step towards him and lashed out with a vicious kick that caught him dead on the chin. His teeth clacked together as he flew onto his back. Ariel pounced, straddling him, jerking his head off the ground by his collar and jamming the gun to his temple.
"Give me the codes." The icy, deadly calm of Ariel's voice coming from River's throat sent the hairs on the back of her mental neck prickling, as well as doing the same to Sheenaman's in actuality. He blathered and sputtered, but could not formulate coherent words through his fear. Ariel helped him find his voice by reaching between his legs and giving the two soft, fleshy globules there a squeeze.
"Ahhhh!" the salesman shrieked, grabbing at her arm. His pain nearly blinded River's mental senses, but Ariel was unfazed. She leaned over him.
"Give me the lockdown code and tag override, or I qu shi you."
"Oww! You crazy bitch! Let go of my balls!"
"I will when you give me the codes." She squeezed a little tighter.
"Ahhh! Stop, stop, stop! Please!"
"Okay, okay!" Sheenaman pleaded. "They're in my office. Lower desk drawer, there's a file in there with 'em," he blubbered. Ariel released her grip and climbed off him. "Ahh!" Sheenaman curled into a fetal position, clutching at his crotch. With no further concern for him than for an ant, Ariel turned heel in the dust and marched towards the office.
"San ba xiao jie!" Sheenaman spat at her back. "You're gonna get what's comin' to you! Ain't no way you'll get away with this!" His fear replaced by fury, he somehow managed to regain his knees, though a hand still protected his damaged man-parts. "I'll have every Lawforce officer and Alliance patrol in this sector on your sorry ass so fast you…" Ariel whirled and placed a perfect shot right between his eyes, ending his tirade and his life with one bullet. His head snapped back, a spray of blood, brain matter, and skull fragments glistening in the sun. He languished like that for a second or more before finally keeling over onto his side.
No! River cried, but it was too late. The sensation of the salesman dying in her mind was like a lightbulb burning out. Just pop! and gone, except for the instant of pain which felt like said lightbulb had been smashed against her skull and the white-hot filament plunged directly into her brain before being snuffed. Ariel continued towards the office without a look back. River thrust herself forward, forcing aside her murderous alternate personality. Her body halted with an awkward jerk as she assumed control of it again. The pistol, still in her hand, trembled a little. River looked down at it. She closed her eyes, trying not to get sick at the image of the bullet impacting the man's skull, as well as the residual sensation of his death. Knowing there was no time to think about either, she mastered her emotions and shoved the gun into its holster. You didn't have to shoot him. Ariel gave her the equivalent of a mental shrug of indifference. He was a threat to the mission. It was necessary. That was all there was to it. She had done it before. River shuddered with a sickly sense of self-loathing. It was no surprise to her that Ariel had killed before, and perhaps she could isolate herself from those deeds. But not this one. This time she was an accomplice to it. She had given Ariel the means. Willing the thoughts away lest she lose control again, she ran for the office. The folder with the codes was right were the salesman said it would be. She found the one she wanted and sprinted back across the lot, half expecting to hear the sirens of approaching Lawforce at any moment. She skirted the body, restraining herself from looking at it, and climbed aboard the ship.
In general, the control deck resembled a much smaller, sleeker version of Serenity. She found the operation to be fairly standard and had the engines powering up a few minutes after unlocking it and disabling the tracking tag. She checked the systems readouts for problems. Nothing dangerous caught her attention. Hull integrity was good, life support functional. The main engine core was only at eighty percent power, but it would do. If she ran at hard burn the whole way, she might be able to make it in two weeks. A small side of impatience from Ariel built inside her over the length of time it would take to reach Osiris, but she calmed it. She would not find a ship much faster than this, even with it running at only eighty percent power. Throttling up the jets, she lifted the ship off the ground, hearing it groan and protest as the landing struts retracted. She hazarded a glance down, the dust swirling over the corpse lying in the middle of the lot. Swallowing the sudden nausea, she tore her eyes away and kicked the jets into full power. She pulled hard on the control stick and the small ship tore up through the sky.
"Aargh!" Kaylee slammed her cutters against the engine housing. "This gorram wire! I done spliced it five times already and I still can't get no current runnin' through it."
"What do you need, Kaylee?" Zoe squatted down beside her, her voice full of forced calm.
"I need a new relay is what I need." Kaylee snapped. Her "little more time" on the repair had turned into almost another three hours. The spare cable she found did not work, so she had taken to splicing in wire from what she could scavenge out of other components. Still, she could not get power to flow through the relay. She sniffed, wiping her eyes with the back of one dirty hand.
"C'mon Kaylee. Pull yourself together, girl," Zoe chided her, but gently. "You gotta get Serenity workin' again."
"I know, Zo. It should be workin', but it ain't. It it's all luan qi ba zao," she sobbed.
"I know it is. But you gotta give me more'n this. What can you do?" Kaylee could see Zoe was trying hard to restrain her impatience and not upset her anymore. She sniffed and wiped her eyes again, thinking.
"Well, I could just bypass it altogether, take it outta the circuit. But then we're only runnin' on half power."
"Will we be moving?"
"That's better 'n not movin'. Do it."
"Okay," nodded Kaylee. Zoe marched out, sidestepping Simon who came in now and wrapped Kaylee in a protective hug.
"I'm sorry, Simon! I can't get her fixed, and now River's out there all alone," she clung to him.
"Shhh," Simon comforted, though his face carried the same anxiety she felt. He looked down into her eyes. "You just do what Zoe said, okay. Just get us moving, and we'll catch up to her." She nodded. He gave her a kiss on the forehead, which caused her to smile just a bit beneath her tears. She crawled back underneath the engine and got to work.
Mal was at the helm of the other shuttle, eyes obsessively flicking between the radar display and the clouds rushing by outside the viewport as he guided the craft into atmo. Using a fake name, he had gotten clearance to land at the port of the largest city on Spider without any trouble. The controller had not even bothered to check his registration, which was typical for a relatively small moon such as this. Ships brought needed business and it was much more convenient for the locals to look the other way or just simply not care too much about the regulations. As long as you did not make a fuss, no one asked questions. However, regardless of his confidence in the lackadaisical attitude of the city's port authority Mal still could not prevent himself from keeping a lookout for a surprise Alliance patrol waiting to ambush them. They made it to the surface without incident, though, and he and Jayne began sweeping the modest-sized berthing area both for a place to land and for any sign of River's shuttle.
"Why're you so sure she'd come here?" Jayne asked him while they searched.
"Conjure it'll be easier for her to blend in with more people. She goes somewhere smaller and she's likely to stand out too much. Plus, this would be the best place to find a long distance transport to the Core." Jayne grunted, non-committal, and continued looking.
On their second pass over the docks, Mal finally spotted a familiar shape.
"There it is!" he turned the shuttle quickly and made for its mate. He found an open berth several slips away and set them down. The two hurried over to the other vehicle, but found it sealed and empty. Unlocking it and stepping inside, Mal briefly scoured the hold and cockpit, but he saw no clues that might point to where River had gone after she abandoned the craft. He knew she could be anywhere by now, maybe even off-world already, but he was not keen on giving up yet. "She only had maybe a half hour's head start on us," he told Jayne. "She could still be around. Come on." As they hustled towards the gate of the port, Mal knew he was taking another big risk. With his picture all over the Cortex recently, there was no telling who might recognize him. He moved swift, keeping his head down and his eyes alert. Jayne did the same. They were passing down one of several wide avenues leading away from the port when two Lawforce officers on mules roared by. Although their sirens were not blaring, they were making more than a little haste towards something to the east. Sharing an apprehensive glance, he and Jayne took off at a jog, following the dusty wake of the officers.
They ended up at the gate to a large lot just beyond the docks. It appeared to be a used shipyard of some sort, judging by the sign and the masses of semi-decrepit hulls scattered about the space. The amount of local law enforcement milling about the entrance made Mal more than a little twitchy, but he had a sinking feeling in his gut that whatever had gone down here had something to do with River. He needed to get more information. A decent crowd of locals had also gathered near the gate to gawk, and Mal sauntered over to one harmless-looking, somewhat elderly fellow. Jayne hung back, keeping an almost paranoid lookout while Mal spoke to the stranger.
"Beg pardon, but what's goin' on here?" he asked.
"You lookin' for a ship?" the man assessed him with a glance up and down.
"Was thinkin' on it," Mal played along.
"Well, you're outta luck today, Sonny," the man shook his graying head. "Ol' Miles Sheenaman's ain't sellin' nothin' to nobody, 'cept maybe the angels. 'Course, a crook like him'd more like to be in Hell. Heh, could still probably wrangle even Lucifer himself into buyin' some worthless piece of shit," he chuckled.
"What happened to him?"
"Got the back of his head blown out, poor bastard," the man explained, spitting a mouthful of chew on the ground afterward.
"Anybody see who did it?" Mal pressed on, trying not to let the urgency growing in him seep into his voice.
"Sure. Got security feeds everywhere, Miles did. Heard one o' the officers say it was some young hooligan, probably strung out or desperate. Although," the man continued after a short pause, "also said he'd never seen nobody take a shot like that."
"Well, said the killer got into a tussle with Miles and was walkin' away when he just turned and shot him. Pow! Right between the eyes from fifty meters, without even lookin'." Mal's blood iced over.
"They catch her?" he asked, although his suddenly dry throat made the question come out with difficulty. He realized too late that he had referred to the shooter as female when the man had assumed it was male.
"Don't know," the elder man shrugged, apparently unaffected by the gender confusion. "But heard tell a ship was missin', too. Reckon that's where he went."
"Much obliged," Mal thanked his informant and retreated back to Jayne. "You hear all that?"
"Most of it," Jayne said. "Reckon it was her?"
"Only one person I know could do somethin' like that," Mal said.
"River," Jayne stated.
"No. The weapon." He leveled a deadly serious gaze at his mercenary. "We gotta get back to Serenity. I got enough cash to put some fuel in both shuttles. You fly the other one back."
"Got it. But what're we gonna do about River? We can't stop her if she's gone all killer-woman again."
"I need to talk to the doc as soon as we're out of atmo." Leaving it at that, Mal led them hastily back towards the port.
"Sounds like it could be her," Zoe agreed after Mal conveyed the gist of his conversation with the old man to her over the radio. "If it is, then we have a problem."
"You don't say," Mal answered grimly. He wished he could reach Serenity faster, but he could not spare the extra fuel it would require. It had cost him enough just to fill both shuttles only halfway, and Chrysabel's advance was growing might sparse in his pocket by this time. However, what was really gnawing on his mind was how in the hell River's Academy personality had been triggered. The only plausible explanation he could summon up was another subliminal message beamed over the Cortex. If that was true, more than likely that meant the Alliance had taken control of her and had ordered her to turn herself over to them.
"But it doesn't make sense, Mal," Simon interjected. "Why would the Alliance make her kill some random person?"
"They probably didn't. She needed a ship, the man confronted her when she tried to take it, and she took action. They want her pretty bad, Doc, and it ain't like the Alliance has had any qualms in the past about collateral damage," he reminded the doctor.
"I'm not so sure. It could be something else."
"What do you mean" Mal inquired on Simon's line of thinking.
"Dr. Harder told me that as the barriers to her conditioning broke down, it might start to manifest without a trigger."
"Manifest? Like how?"
"He mentioned mood swings, personality changes…"
"Oh…" Zoe's exclamation was extraordinarily brief and only in the background, but it was enough to gather Mal's attention.
"Zoe?" he called to her. "You thinkin' of somethin'?"
"I think Dr. Harder was right," Zoe responded. "The other day, back when we decided to head here, I was on the bridge with her after you left."
"I remember. What're you tryin' to say?" Mal pressed.
"Well, she didn't look right. I don't know what it was, but somethin' was off. So I asked her. She said she was fine, and then snapped at me when I tried to push her about it. I gave her a little talkin' to about respect and the chain of command, but I swear she was about to jump out of her seat and start throwin' punches."
"That doesn't sound like River," Simon commented.
"No, it don't," Mal frowned, rubbing his chin. "What else did Dr. Harder say?" he queried Simon.
"Just that the transition could be unpredictable and traumatic." He hesitated. "And that the Alliance might have programmed into her a... a failsafe."
"We know about the safe word."
"No, Mal," Simon stopped him. "A self-destruct code."
"Scuttle the weapon in case it falls into the wrong hands," Mal muttered, the dark realization dawning on him. "Gorram sick… You didn't think any of this was important to tell me?" he rounded on Simon.
"I didn't know if it was accurate or not, and we didn't have time to investigate any further before you kicked Dr. Harder off," Simon shot back.
"What, her little outburst against him and his wife wasn't a clue? What could she have done to Zoe? Or Kaylee? Or Inara? Or any one of us who came across her wrong? Gorram it, Doc...!" Mal almost launched into a tirade, but stopped himself. Simon was going through hell enough right now. And after all the terror they endured just to get River better, it must be destroying him inside to have to admit she might be heading the opposite way again. "Well, that muddles things up a bit," he tempered his tone. "I guess we won't know one way or the other until we get to her. But we better do it before they do."
"I think she still means to go to Osiris to see our parents," Simon reiterated.
"Yeah, and maybe she'll go monkey-shit again and kill them, too. Or maybe she'll go after the Alliance, or the people that did this to her at the Academy. Or maybe she'll just start gunnin' down random innocent civilians," Jayne cut in with his rather bleak assessment, which Mal could not completely dismiss as implausible.
"I don't think she'd harm our parents," Simon deflected, but there was doubt there. Mal could not ignore it, either.
"I understand why you'd say that," he started, "but after what we just heard, I don't think we can safely assume what her motives are anymore. If her mind's all messed up like Dr. Harder said it might be, she could be thinkin' anything. Maybe she just wants to go home, but maybe the Alliance has gotten hold of her. Maybe she's just pissed and wants to take it out on your folks. In any case, she's just as much of a danger as if she was the weapon, maybe even more so." Simon did not respond, but Mal knew he had to be thinking the same thing.
"Sir, what do you want to do?" Zoe rejoined the conversation, asking him point-blank. Mal considered his choices. River had given them an out. They could take the course she had plotted for them and likely steer clear of the Alliance for some time. The fact that she had done that before she left lent some credence to the possibility that she was still somewhat in her right mind and not crazy or the Alliance's deadliest puppet on a string. It also meant that she had chosen to put herself in great danger in part to keep the rest of the crew from further harm. That did not sound like the motivation of a person who was not thinking clearly or involuntarily following some conditioned response. She had chosen to leave for a reason, and given the rest of them the choice not to follow her. He could not think of a more foolish thing to do than to turn his back on her offered alternative of escape into the farther reaches of the Verse.
"Mal, if the Alliance finds her, they'll take her back," Simon interrupted his ruminations, his voice taut.
"I know the score, Doc. But the moment we pop back on the nav beacons, the Alliance'll have us pegged, too."
"But we can't do nothing!" Simon cried. Mal set his jaw against the doctor's desperate plea.
"This ain't like Miranda," he leveled. "We don't got no secret army of Reavers or Mr. Universe to back us up. It'll take all the fuel we got left to make it if we go after her, and that means no goin' back once we get there. We do this, we're walking naked into the lion's den. I can't ask you all to do that again." He took a long breath. "But I'm gonna. I'm goin' after her, 'cause she's on my crew. 'Cause she's family. I don't expect you all to feel the same, but if you don't you best speak up now. Zoe?" he spoke into the radio mic.
"The Alliance'll be all over us once they see us on the Cortex." There was a long pause. "But we got ways of gettin' around that. We could probably keep 'em off our tail with the crybabies for a time. Might even be enough to get us to Osiris," she said with faint hope. But it was still hope.
"Jayne?" Jayne also waited a long time to answer.
"I ain't been known to do the smart thing very often," he said, uncharacteristically quiet. "But it ain't right that she can't see her Ma one last time. I think Vera n' me might have a thing or two to say about that." Mal could not help but grin a little at that.
"Where's Inara?" he asked next.
"I'm here, Mal," Inara answered in short order.
"Inara, if you wanna…" She cut him off before he could finish.
"I'm here, Mal." That told him all he needed to know. As for Kaylee's opinion, he was quite sure enough of where she landed on the spectrum that he did not feel the need to ask. A small swell of pride settled in his chest. They really were his crew, through and through.
"Shiny. Set our course for Osiris, Zoe, and then start preppin' the crybabies. And get Kaylee on that gorram relay!"
"Kaylee, you gotta try one more time, okay?" Simon sat next to her on the floor with a flustered Mal standing nearby. "For River. We need full power if we're going to help her."
"Okay," Kaylee's reply was a mere whisper. She would try again, but she knew it was hopeless. She was never going to get it fixed, and River was going to be gone forever, and it would be her fault. She wiped her eyes, cheeks red.
"Thank you," Simon gave her a hug. That almost made her crumble again. She did not deserve his support. But if he was not going to give up, then she would not either. She stood up heavily and went to the engine bay.
"Here goes," she sighed and slid beneath it one more time. Digging inside the access panel, she tugged the copper filaments of the power relay out of their sheath and cut through the most recent failed splice with her snips. She tossed aside the carbonized leads and reached for the strand of spare cabling she had been cannibalizing for the wire. It was nearly gone now. There was maybe enough for two more attempts, and that was it. She pulled out the strands, twisted them together, and crimped them into place. No sooner had she made the last connection when a blue spark leaped out from beneath her hands. She yelped in surprise.
"Are you okay?" Simon was on his hands and knees looking beneath the engine.
"Yeah, I'm fine," she slid out, mildly stunned.
"Did you get burned?" Simon took her hands.
"No, no. It didn't get me. But, I think I fixed it."
"You sure?" Mal asked.
"Yeah, pretty sure. That spark was power goin' through the splice I just set. I guess we'll see." She stepped over to the engine controls and hesitantly initiated the power-up sequence. The room rumbled as the big compression block gradually wound up.
"What's the readout?" Mal wanted to know, moving beside her, followed by Simon.
"Five by five. Power at one hundred percent," she said with a kind of disbelief. She checked the readout again. "Yeah, it's holdin'. We got power back!" she cheered. Simon moved to embrace her.
"See, I knew you could do it." He planted a big kiss on her lips.
"Mmm, well I don't know if it was worth all that, but okay." She nuzzled Simon's nose and then delved into an even deeper kiss with him.
"Knock it off," the captain interrupted their passionate moment. "We don't got time for that. Zoe," he called through the com. "Kaylee's got the relay fixed. Lock course and prepare for burn."
"Aye, sir!" Zoe's voice burst over the intercom. "Course locked, ready for burn."
"We're gonna have to go full out all the way to Osiris. Can she handle it?" Mal turned to his mechanic. Kaylee's exuberance dampened.
"Uh, well, it ain't the prettiest work I ever done. I don't know, Cap'n. We never burned for that long before," she glanced at Mal with uncertainty.
"Forget what we've done before. What's she tellin' you, Kaylee?" Kaylee turned and looked around the engine room. It was her Zen chamber, the heart of Serenity. She listened to the throb of the engine, running a hand along the wall to feel it through her fingers. Her gaze lingered on the rotating compressor. She felt the strength there, the will. Serenity was missing one of her own, and she wanted to go after her just as much as they did.
"She's ready and willin', Cap'n," she replied with confidence now. "She won't let us down."
"All right. Fire her up!"
"Aye aye!" Kaylee darted to the front of the engine and grabbed the crank, pausing just a second before she threw it over. The core roared to life at her command, filling her with a sudden rush of hope as vibrant as the power she sent surging through the ship.
We're comin' River, she thought.