Chapter 17

Bent over a workstation at the head of the room, Kriegel monitored a real-time map of River Tam's potential locations being produced by the Fugitive Task Force's largest investigation group. Shortly after her encounter with the recovery team at her parent's house two days ago, Chu-yu had unexpectedly ordered him to release a statement about Serenity's capture and River's presence on Osiris. Since then, tips had been flooding in from across Capital City and elsewhere on the planet on her whereabouts. Nine or ten analysts were dedicated to sifting through security feed footage, trying to catch a glimpse of her. At the same time, a team of nearly two dozen operators had been fielding waves for the past two days, and the influx showed no signs of slowing down. Although a majority of the people waving in had no reliable information to pass along, Kriegel was still pleasantly surprised by the public's response. Maybe it was good samaritanism, or maybe people just wanted to be a part of something exciting and extraordinary, but whatever it was the events surrounding Serenity and her crew had captivated the attention of the masses. This was a far cry from the disappointment of her escape forty-eight hours ago, and he had new confidence that they would be bringing in the girl in within a matter of hours rather than days. With the involvement of this much of the populace in the search, it would be impossible for her to hide for much longer.

"Excuse me, sir," an operator called from the lanes of workstations covering the floor. "Major General Kriegel?"

"Yes?" Kriegel asked without looking away from his screen.

"Sir, I think you need to take this wave."

"What is it?" Kriegel glanced up, noting the thread of urgency in the operator's voice.

"It's River Tam, sir."

"Someone has located her?" Kriegel was up out of his seat now.

"No, it is River Tam," the operator clarified, his throat bobbing with excitement. "It's her. She wants to speak to you." Kriegel stared in disbelief at the man for a second, and the throbbing buzz of conversations around him drained away into surprised silence as the shock of that statement spread throughout the room.

"Can you verify it?" Kriegel double-checked, growing excited, yet skeptical at the same time. He had a hard time believing that River would do anything as brazen as contacting the Task Force for any reason, even just to gloat. It did not fit her profile. But as the man's eyes slipped to his screen to check again, there was no doubting the look of sheer incredulity on his face. It was indeed her.

"Keep her on the line," he told the man breathlessly. Then he started firing out orders, blasting away the shock and sending the room into a frenzy of activity. "Do we have the code and identity of the unit she's on?"

"Getting it now!" someone shouted in response.

"Get it into the trace program. Where are we on satellite access?" he swung to another group of workstations.

"Not yet, sir."

"Well move it! Let's go!" Kriegel shouted, loath to let even a few precious seconds slip by while they had this opportunity to ensnare her.

"I made the request, just waiting for a response," a technician answered. "Okay, permission granted. We should have access in a few seconds… there! Satellites linked. We have access."

"Start the trace," Kriegel commanded. "Are we recording?"

"Signal trace initiated," confirmed one of the specialists.

"Broadwave recording."

"We're ready, sir," nods and affirmatives sounded around him. Kriegel darted back behind his desk and settled in his chair just as his screen flickered with distortion, and then there in full definition was River herself.

"Miss Tam," he greeted, suppressing all the adrenaline running through his system with practiced skill. "I'm very glad to finally hear from you." River offered no response of any kind to his welcome, just staring straight at him. Her eyes flicked around his shoulders after a second, scanning the room beyond, although he knew there was nothing of interest for her to see. However, he used that moment to also search through her background for any indications of her current whereabouts. Unfortunately, she must have been using a handheld unit, as the camera could barely capture her entire face, let alone anything behind it. The image quality was also fairly poor, and there was a delay and break-up in it whenever she moved. He wondered if that was caused by the trace program they were running or if she just had a weak signal. Either way, he had to keep her on the wave long enough for his team to do their job. "I hope you've decided to do the right thing and turn yourself in now," he said to her, trying to open a dialogue in the right direction. She still did not speak or even nod, her expression completely unreadable. A little anxiety crept into his mind at her reticence, but he kept talking, hoping to engage her. "It would be the best thing for you to do, River, taking responsibility for your actions. You're a smart girl, and I would hate to go through another incident like the other day at your parents' house and see more people get hurt. I know you don't want that."

"Let Serenity go," she spoke for the first time.

"Excuse me?" Kriegel blinked at the screen.

"Let the crew of Serenity go, and I will turn myself in," she elaborated, stoic.

"River, you know that's not possible," he admonished her after a pause. "They've all committed some very serious crimes of their own. We can't just let them go."

"Yes you can. They aren't a threat to you," she countered with cool rationality.

"Captain Reynolds was a volunteer for the Independents and a decorated veteran of the bloodiest battle in the war. Together with his involvement in the Miranda incident, I think that makes him more than a bit dangerous," Kriegel disputed.

"The captain doesn't want to start the war again. He just wants to keep his family safe."

"You mean his crew," Kriegel clarified with a frown.

"Yes," River quietly concurred.

"Does this 'family' include you?" he followed his instincts with his next question. She dropped her gaze, the first indication of any emotion breaking through her neutral expression.

"No. I don't belong there." Her answer was muted by the strands of hair which fell into her face.

"Why not?" She did not answer him. "Where do you belong, then?"

"The Academy." There was a dead, hollow ring to her words now.

"Are you sure about that?" She raised her head again, forcing the dispassionate expression to return. He assumed that was as much of an affirmative as he was going to get from her, but it did not matter whether it was truthful or not. She was going back to the Academy one way or another, and he was just eager to hasten it by taking advantage of whatever twisted motivation was spurring her to make this wave. "Well, we should get you back to there as soon as possible, then. Just tell us where you are…"

"You're not going to release them," she interrupted. It was not a question.

"No," he confirmed, growing a tad annoyed at her inane effort to bargain for Serenity's release. "I think they need to accept the consequences of their actions, just as you are."

"Then you will have to kill me." Although spoken in the same flat, controlled manner as before, there was no mistaking the implication in her words. Kriegel could only stare at her for a second, astounded by her gall. She was actually threatening to retaliate against the Alliance in retribution for not freeing Serenity.

"What did you say?" he leaned forward on his desk, purposefully looming over his camera. He did not like the turn the conversation had suddenly taken, and he was not one to be intimidated, especially not by the likes of her.

"If you won't release them, you will have to kill me," she repeated.

"Now why would I have to do that?"

"Because if you don't let them go, I will kill her." River's face vanished from his screen and the image blurred and swung as she moved the Cortex unit around. When it refocused again, the camera was on someone else. Although the visual was still somewhat distorted, Kriegel could make out a woman, middle-aged and well-dressed, with short very dark brown hair. She was sitting on the floor of some unfinished room with garbage and rubble all about. Her wrists and ankles were bound, and her face was terrified and streaked with tears. There was a fleeting second of confusion before Kriegel recognized her, and then his mind exploded in fear. It was gut-dropping, pulse-pounding fear, the kind he had not known since… ever, not even during the war. It overwhelmed his logical thought process which was stuck trying to envision how in the Verse what he was seeing could possibly be real. It was not possible. It did not make sense. There had to be another explanation, some sort of trick. She could never accomplish something like this. He was still fighting to get a grip on his beleaguered thoughts when the screen image swung back and was filled with River's countenance once again. Whereas before there had been just a withdrawn young woman, now Kriegel saw nothing but a ruthless killer. It was there in her eyes, even though her expression had not changed, or perhaps because it had not. He had seen eyes like those only in the heads of the most remorseless and brutal individuals- murderers, serial killers, and violent psychotics. And she had his wife. "If you free Serenity, I will let her go and turn myself in," River said. "If not, I will kill her, and then your son, and then every other person close to you until you do." The threat was emotionless, chilling, and absolutely, undoubtedly real. "I will trade their lives for your family's, Major General," she said. "You have half an hour." Then the wave went dark.

River's abrupt signing off plunged the room into a deathly silence. Kriegel kept staring at his screen, now returned to the map it had displayed previously, shock written across his face. His heart was thumping in his ears. He could not see anything but the image of his wife trussed up and frightened with River standing over her, staring down with those impossibly cruel, empty eyes that had iced his blood over.

"Sir? Major General? How do you want to proceed?" someone spoke up with trepidation, breaking the silence. Kriegel blinked and turned slowly to the analyst who had spoken.

"Did we get a trace?" he asked, his voice numb.

"We couldn't get an exact location," answered a technician from another corner of the room. "We only had a lock with one or two satellites. The best we can do is estimate that she is somewhere within this area." Kriegel swung back to his map again. It displayed a newly highlighted region encompassing the range of River's potential locations, which included some of the worst slums and blighted areas of Capital City. Some of those areas were known Blackout zones. He swallowed the knot growing in his throat.

"What about an ID on the unit?" he asked.

"Getting it now," another tech called out. "It looks like the unit she waved from was registered to…" the woman hesitated. "Eileen J. Kriegel," she finished with noticeable strain in her voice. Suffocating silence blanketed the floor once more. Kriegel's eyes burned holes into his screen. The clock in the corner showed three minutes had passed since River had made her threat. He had twenty-seven minutes to find his wife. Despite the panic setting in on him, his well-trained military mind was able to counter it. It subdued the fear beneath disciplined practicality and began rapidly assessed the most immediate strategic options available. He knew he had to act quickly given the exigency of the situation, and his battle-tested reflexes started to take over. He leaped up from his workstation and began pacing down the rows of workstations.

"Wave my wife's work. Find out if she's still there," he called out, shattering the stillness that had paralyzed the room. "Then get a security team organized and send it to my son's school. Wave the administration and tell them to go on lockdown until they get there. Absolutely no one in or out."

"Should we tell them why?" someone asked.

"No. Tell them it's a nonspecific threat. Keep it quiet. I don't want any kind of public hysteria. Then get me Brigadier General Knowlton from Abydos on the priority channel," he said. "I'll take it down in my office. Keep working on narrowing down her location. Check all the security feeds in the search area. I want her found!" His urgency spilled over to the rest of the Task Force as the teams of technicians and specialists immediately surged into overdrive. The noise in the room had already redoubled by the time he finished his last order. Fueled by adrenaline now, he almost broke into a run to reach his office at the back wall of the room. Once there, he went straight away to the closet behind his desk and unlocked it.

"Sir," a Task Force technician popped up on his workstation within a few seconds of his arrival.

"Go," he called without turning around.

"We've confirmed that your wife is not at her job. Her transport is missing as well." A fresh surge of fear threatened to overtake him, but Kriegel thrust it down.

"Thank you."

"Brigadier General Knowlton is also on the priority channel," the tech added.

"Put him through."

"Yes, sir."

"Dan," Kreigel's long-time friend greeted him a second later. "I gather this isn't just an exercise or xiao ti da zuo."

"We've got a hostage situation with our fugitive. I'm going to need your assistance," Kriegel explained while tugging on a flak vest over his uniform.

"Certainly. I'm authorized to support you in any capacity you need. What do you want…"

"It's my wife, Stephen," Kriegel interrupted his compatriot without preamble. He turned to the screen while still fastening up his body armor, his face grave. "She has my wife." Knowlton's eyes went wide with disbelief.

"What? How?"

"I don't know. She waved from Eileen's portable and she showed me…" his throat unexpectedly closed up, choking off the rest of his sentence. He paused for a moment, steadying his nerves. "She wants the crew of Serenity released within a half hour, or she's threatened to kill her."

"Tian qian," Knowlton hissed. "That's insane. Do you know where she is?"

"Not exactly. We have a search radius, though. I'll have the Task Force upload it to you." A strained expression overtook Knowlton's face.

"Dan, you know I'll do whatever I can to help, but we can't mobilize in less than half an hour."

"I know. That's why I'm going after her. I'll try to keep her distracted until the Task Force can pinpoint her location. If I can find her, I can stop her. But if I can't, that will give you enough time to get there."

"How are you going to do that?" Knowlton asked.

"I have resources. Trust me. I just need you to back me up."

"Are you sure you should be the one to…" Knowlton left the question unfinished.

"Would you stand by if it was your wife?" Kriegel shot back, working his shoulder holster around the bulky vest. Knowlton conceded with a nod. "I'll meet you in the field, then. Good hunting," his friend bade, and then the screen blanked out. With a resolute tug, Kriegel jerked the straps of his shoulder harness snug and hurried to his desk. He opened the broadwave screen again and dialed his secure code to Dr. Qin at the Academy. The scientist answered in short order.

"Dr. Qin. We have a critical situation," Kriegel said by way of greeting and proceeded to hastily summarize the circumstances to the surprised doctor.

"This is worse than our models predicted," evaluated Dr. Qin. "She sounds completely unstable. Her mind must not have been able to handle the strain of reintegrating the conditioning. It could have shattered her personality matrix entirely. If that's the case, her behavior will continue becoming even more erratic and there is no telling what she could do."

"No," Kriegel disagreed. "I think she knows exactly what she's doing." He recalled those heartless eyes and the cold, calculating voice as they leveled the threat at his loved ones. Dr. Qin may have been right about not being able to reason with her, but she was far from insane. "I need to neutralize her, Doctor," he stated. "I'll need her termination code."

"Yes, of course," Dr. Qin's eyes enlarged slightly at the request, the gravity of the situation finally sinking into him. "I'll have to pull her file to get them."

"I don't have time to wait. Upload it to my portable," Kriegel ordered.

"Yes, sir. What's your strategy for bringing her in?"

"I'll try my best to keep her in intact, but I won't make any guarantees," Kriegel remarked ominously. Grabbing his standard-issue sidearm from its compartment in his desk, he checked the chamber and then slapped in a magazine and jammed the weapon into his shoulder rig. He stuffed two more clips into the tactical pouches on his vest. "Get to work, Doctor."

"Yes, sir. Good luck," Dr. Qin wished him.

River stood pointedly with her back to Eileen Kriegel, trying to shut out the woman's frightened, terrified thoughts. Although she had repressed her emotions and empathy beneath the hollow shell of what was once Ariel, it was not possible to completely shut things out. As she had suspected, something had happened to her alternate. Ariel was no longer a separate entity within her in the way the Academy had originally conditioned, but nor was she gone. The passionless, calculated use of violence that defined her had simply become another aspect of River's personality now, fully integrated. She no longer needed the artificial construct of Ariel to access it. She had accepted it as a part of who she was, welcomed it even, in this situation. Unfortunately, as a consequence of the change, Ariel's characteristic of being unencumbered by emotions was now gone just when she needed it most. However, she still had the skills and techniques with which to control her feelings, and she put them to full use ignoring the seething turmoil emanating from Eileen Kriegel's mind. And whenever she felt a pang of sympathy that was almost strong enough to break through, she envisioned of the crew of Serenity, her friends, locked up and possibly suffering a similar ordeal or worse at the hands of the Alliance. It was the extra impulse she needed to keep her determination focused. She was doing this for them. That was all that mattered. That was not to say that she had deluded herself in any way about what this meant for her, but it was the only way the Alliance would understand.

She occupied the rest of her thoughts in meditative silence counting down the moments since she had issued her ultimatum, the mundane task keeping her focus sharp on her purpose. At twenty-four minutes and thirty-seven seconds, Eileen's portable Cortex unit on the concrete floor chirped, causing a petrified whimper to escape from the woman's lips. River picked it up and accepted the wave. It was Major General Kriegel.

"You have five minutes and twenty-three seconds left, Major General," she informed him.

"I will give you this one chance to let my wife go and surrender yourself," Kriegel said with iron words. "If you carry on with this, it won't do anything to help you or your friends, and I will be forced to take drastic action." River let the threat roll off of her and she silently glanced at the major general's wife, leaving him to stew in her silence for a few seconds.

"Your wife is thinking about you and your son, and how much she doesn't want to die like this, never seeing either of you again. Is that what you want her final thoughts to be?" she glanced back to the Cortex screen. Kriegel's face twisted and contorted into shapes of hatred and disgust, but he mastered his emotions and spoke calmly in response.

"My wife hasn't done anything to you."

"Did I do anything to deserve what was done to me?" she fired back without inflection.

"Captain Reynolds and his crew have blood on their hands," Kriegel changed tack. "They are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of soldiers in that battle. I can't brush that aside."

"And I can't ignore that the Alliance is responsible for millions of deaths on Miranda."

"My family wasn't involved in any of that. They're innocent."

"They're ignorant, not innocent," River bit back at him. "Serenity was no different than your wife, until they found me. I showed them the truth. You lied to your family. You made them and everyone else in the Verse accomplices by lying to them. Innocence and guilt do not matter, Major General. They're just words. All that matters is how we treat each other. You brought this on your family, because of what you've done, because of how you've treated others. Now you have to suffer the consequences. You all do."

"I've called out an entire battalion from Abydos," Kriegel's expression darkened. "Do you know what's going to happen when they reach you?" he threatened with a dangerous glare.

"You don't have that much time," she countered.

"Neither do you!" he snarled back. "Eta kuram na smekh!"

River froze as the syllables of the phrase hit her ears. An instant, hopeless claw of despair slashed through her chest, cutting off her breath. She realized with bitter regret that she had underestimated Kriegel and completely overlooked this one crucial factor. Her plan was going to be over before it even began. She had failed. Her eyes remained locked with the major general's, a devious, satisfied expression settled on his face while she waited for the blackness to enfold her, for the nothingness to drag her down and bring about an end to her hope. Her heart felt like it had stopped. A second passed. Then another... and another. Nothing happened. A tremulous breath escaped her with a shudder. It had not worked. The safe word had not worked! Kriegel had realized it too, and his self-assured smirk gradually gave way to confusion and then anger.

"Gorramnihil reliqui!" he shouted at her, his eyes full of impotent fury. River blinked, waiting for something else to happen, but nothing did. She did not know what the intended function of this other phrase was, but it clearly had no effect on her either. The Academy had lost control over her. Her brief moment of delight at that realization was quickly tempered by the subsequent realization that it was not true. Her conditioning may have faded to the point where they could no longer force her to act against her will, but they had never lost their hold on her. Ever since they had taken her, changed her, tried to make her into Ariel, she had been tied to the Alliance and the Academy. Their actions had dictated her life since then. It was an unavoidable consequence of what they had done, and she would never completely be free of it.

"You have one minute, Major General," she told him, quickly calculating how much time was left on her mental countdown.

"This is not going to work. You will only make it harder on them," Kriegel's anger was rapidly turning into desperation as he tried to stop her. "But maybe we can come to some other arrangement," he suggested.

"No. The arrangement is what I said. Release the crew of Serenity."

"I don't think…"

"There's no need to think about it," she cut him off evenly. "Just do it. You have thirty seconds before your wife loses her life to your indecision." Kriegel's pallor blanched, but he did not give up trying to negotiate with her.

"River, we both know you won't hurt her," he stated with false calm and assurance. "You're not a murderer."

"Yes I am," she said, her words quiet, and as cold and hard as the concrete floor she stood upon. "You made me into one." She placed the Cortex unit on the ground and counted the final seconds off silently. A terrible helplessness filled Kriegel's eyes. Finally they will understand what they've created, she thought. She turned to her hostage and raised her pistol. The woman shrieked.

"No! NO!" Kriegel cried from the screen. The roar of her gun drowned him out. In the milliseconds between the bullet exiting the chamber and plowing through Eileen Kriegel's head, an avalanche of sensations buried River. The memories and emotions of the woman rushed through her consciousness in a stampede even Ariel's engineered discipline could neither control nor resist. Then the bullet struck flesh and bone, and a flash of white heat seared every corner of her brain. It was gone a split second later, and so were all traces of Eileen Kriegel's life. Her screams were silent, blood and gray matter splattering the wall behind her. She slumped to one side.

River turned back to the Cortex screen and the major general. There was nothing but devastation etched into the lines on his face now. Although it was impossible to read him through the device, she did not need to in order to know what he was feeling. She knew it all too well. Inside, she was sick to her soul, if such a thing existed. Her features quivered faintly, threatening to be overrun by her churning emotions before she quashed them beneath the weight of her will. She could not allow herself to feel anything. That would only make it more difficult to do what she had to do. Right now, she had to move. Sliding her gun into the hidden holster on her thigh, she picked up the Cortex unit and turned it off. Grabbing her jacket from the floor, she did not give another glance to the dead woman's body as she slipped the unit into one of the pockets and disappeared down the stairs of the building that had served as her hideout. She knew that the Alliance had probably been tracing her signal, and with Eileen's transport nearby, they would soon have a lock on where she was. She could no longer hope to find refuge in the relative obscurity of the Blackout zones. That was the first place they would look now, and they would tear them apart trying to find her. She had to lose herself in the city, find a place to lie low until she could enact the next step of her plan. Shrouded in the large coat and with her hair messily tied atop her head, she wended her way through the back alleys and passageways, working slowly out of the slums and towards the working-class sections of the city.

She had made it perhaps ten blocks before she heard the unmistakable roar of turbines swiftly approaching. Pressing back against a wall, she peered up from beneath the cowl of her jacket as six troop transports thundered overhead, racing off in the direction she had come from. After they passed, she moved on as quickly as she could, anxious to put some more distance between them and her. Unfortunately, her movements were greatly restricted by the fact that it was daylight and there were enough people around that she was sure to be spotted by some alert passer-by or a sharp-eyed technician on a security feed. She spent much of her time sulking in alleys, using her mental senses to judge when it was safe to pass through the open areas. By evening, she had managed to make it several kilometers from her starting point and decided she was far enough away that she could start looking for a place to spend the night. She was not keen on sleeping out of doors both for the exposure to the elements and the worry that the Alliance might decide to initiate a wide area search instead of focusing on the Blackout zones.

With the light fading now, she found it easier to move around without notice, but there were still a fair number of folk about. Street lamps also became a threat, and she took pains to remain in the darker shadows of buildings as she hunted for shelter. Hunkering in a stinking, scum-lined passageway between two structures, she finally spotted something beyond the end of the alley that might afford her a safe haven. A large complex of worn apartments occupied the next block. They looked like the kind of place that would be inhabited by the working poor and those just barely scraping by on the edge of legitimate society. With those kinds of tenants it was doubtful any landlord could afford a fancy security system or connection to the Lawforce feeds. Using her senses to search for any nearby minds, she waited for a break in the passing traffic before scurrying across the uncomfortably wide avenue and up to the door of the first building in the complex. Unfortunately, although security monitors might be beyond the means of the owners, ident card-keyed locks were apparently not. Turning away from the door with furtive glances all around, she walked briskly down the sidewalk around the side of the building. Behind it, a courtyard enclosed by a two-meter-tall steel fence separated the structure from its neighbors. With only a brief second to evaluate the obstacle, she tossed her jacket over the spikes guarding the top of the fence and scrambled over without much trouble.

Feeling relatively safer now that she was off the streets, she slunk along the edge of the building wall. At least the landlord was cheap enough to defer maintenance on the lights in the courtyard, and she appreciated the extra cover the lack of illumination afforded. She crept forward until she encountered a service door leading to the basement, but it was solidly locked. Moving on, her prospects improved when she located a crawl-sized window near the ground that was slightly ajar in its frame. Crouching down, she worked her fingers into the gap and tugged, but it was too small of a space get a solid grip and the window remained stuck fast. After a few more moments of trying, she gave up on brute force and went for destruction. Wadding her jacket in front of the glass, she gave the pane two sharp strikes through the thick fabric with the butt of her pistol before it shattered. Her eyes darted around the darkened courtyard, searching along with her mental awareness for anyone who might have heard the noise, but nothing stirred except the breeze. Hurriedly, she used the jacket to knock out as much of the remaining glass as possible. Then she slid through the opening feet first. In her haste, she had not completely cleared the frame and she felt the sting of a few stray shards slicing into her bare legs. She dropped down to the basement floor and crouched down against the wall, still and silent for a good five minutes. When no one came to investigate in that time, she finally relaxed her guard and moved deeper into the cellar behind some pipes and equipment.

Secluded where no one could see her without making their presence known first, she attended to her wounds, using the jacket to staunch the blood that was leaving sticky trails down her legs. The injuries were minor, though, and just a secondary concern. Right now she had to make arrangements to bring the next step of her plan into fruition. She had already gotten all of the information she needed from reading Eileen Kriegel's mind during her abduction, and her hiding place in the apartment would provide an authentic cover to allow her to make her move. Flipping on the Cortex unit she had stolen from her stalker the several nights ago, she first gave a brief bit of attention to the newsfeeds. There was predictably plenty of buzz about the search for her, although there was no mention of Mrs. Kriegel. She expected as much. That kind of information might make people ask uncomfortable questions as to how a supposedly frightened, mentally disturbed teenage girl had the wherewithal to kidnap and murder an Alliance officer's wife. How they ultimately explained away the woman's death was not important, though. What was important was the graphic that depicted the boundaries of the region where the Alliance was searching for her, and the report that the military would be setting up checkpoints all along it. Currently the apartment complex was just outside of that boundary, but it was still too close for comfort. If the Alliance did not locate her in the zone of primary focus, they could easily expand that envelope. She realized she did not have time to spare to take her next step. She had to move by morning. Switching over to the information network, she called up the Capital City wave directory and chose a shop from the list of appropriate vendors. Then she placed an order.

Stirring from a mostly sleepless night on the floor of the apartment cellar, River sat up on the spread of her jacket and first checked the cuts on her legs. They were crusted with dried blood and stung when she moved, but otherwise appeared fine. Concerns over catching tetanus or some other infection briefly flitted through her mind, but that was really the least of the consequences she was facing when it came down to it. What did a few scrapes matter when she had killed multiple innocent people, and was likely to kill more. A surge of Eileen Kriegel's memories as she murdered her rushed to the surface. They had been seared into every neuron in her brain at the moment of the woman's death, and she knew she could never forget them. But right now her friends still needed her help, and she could not fail them. Her conscience was only a handicap in this instance, and she could not afford to be distracted by it. Drawing on Ariel's single-minded strength of purpose, she managed to block her mind from going any further down that dangerous avenue. Reigning in her emotions beneath the blanket of rationality, she reminded herself that it was all just a necessary part of the plan, that she had no choice. However, deep within the recesses of her consciousness, she recognized with the same plain, cold logic that she had progressed beyond even Ariel's level of violence now. There was no doubt anymore that the Academy had turned her into a murderer, a psychopath, an assassin, and anything else the Alliance might have desired before Simon broke her out. That was the course they had laid for her, and she had simply followed it to its natural conclusion. However, instead of stopping at the end, she had gone one step beyond. They had programmed Ariel to kill when ordered. Her alter had some agency within the scope of any given mission, but overall she could only do as she was directed, without any recognition of right or wrong beyond her objective. River, though, had used Ariel to kill with full conscience and knowledge of the improbity of her actions. She had perverted their creation just as it had perverted her. Perhaps she could justify her motivations as out of necessity, but that did not alter the fact that she was walking the left-hand path with no intention of turning back. One could argue that was the very definition of evil. And if that was true, it made her something far darker than Ariel had ever been. It was no wonder the Alliance wanted her captured or destroyed now. She had become a monster.

§17. The chime of the pre-programmed alert on her stolen Cortex unit startled her from the depths of her dark contemplations. She checked the notice briefly, but she knew what it was and was already rising from the floor before she actually saw it. It was time to go. She slipped through the interior basement door, her reader's senses fully focused on the corridor and stairwell leading up to the main floor. She crept up, hand ready near her hidden pistol in case she needed it. At the top of the landing, she glanced each way down the semi-lit hallway to make sure it was empty, and then headed for the front entrance. As she strode towards the door, she saw through the glass a man in a gaudy blue and yellow uniform standing outside and fussing with the intercom on the wall. In his hand was a single, small potted plant with a vivid blue bloom on the end of its stalk that was an even more intense shade than that on his uniform. Centaurea cyanus, she recalled with a dash of longing regret before she shut her feelings off completely.

The man's expression took on a tint of relief when he looked up and saw her approaching through the glass.

"Hi," he greeted as she flung open the door. "Are you, uh, Ms…" he hesitated, reaching into his pocket to check his tablet for verification. He did not get to finish his sentence. When he looked back to River, his eyes met the barrel of her pistol just centimeters from his forehead. His cheeks rapidly turned ashy pale.

"Turn around and walk back to your vehicle," she instructed him in a calm manner that was nevertheless tinged with hardened steel. He gulped heavily, frozen to his spot.

"Look, I… I… I don't have any money. I just make the deliveries. There's nothing in there but flowers," he stammered.

"I don't want money. I want you to go to your vehicle and get inside," she repeated.

"Oh god," the man muttered, his eyes filling with desperate fright. He obeyed, though, turning and stepping somewhat unsteadily down the stoop of the building. River followed almost on top of him, the gun resting against the small of his back now and partially concealed by the nearness of their bodies. "Get in," she ordered when he stopped at the door of his delivery vehicle, which shared the same loud colors as his outfit. He licked his lips nervously and opened up the door. River prodded him into the pilot's seat and hopped in beside him, yanking the door closed.

"You can put that down," she said. The man blinked at her in non-comprehension at first before he realized that he was still holding the flower pot. It almost fell out of his trembling fingers as he set it on the floor between the seats. "You're going to turn off your Cortex and your company's vehicle tracking system," she ordered next.

"I can't… I mean, I'm not supposed to… we're not supposed to," the man bumbled. River locked his eyes in a hard gaze, flicking her glance once down at her pistol still trained on him, but held below dash level so no one outside could see it. "Okay… okay," he stuttered. It took his unsteady hands several tries before he successfully powered off his tablet, and then a few more moments while his fear-addled mind tried to remember how to disable the tracking beacon. River endured it with stolid patience as antagonizing him any more was likely to render him useless, and she needed him to be as normal and coherent as possible.

"Now, listen very carefully," she started explaining after he finished turning off the system. "You're going to do everything I tell you. As long as you do, everything will be fine. Do you understand?"

"What do you want with me?" he asked, his words blunted by confusion and anxiety. She almost managed a wry smile in response.

"We're going for a ride."

It was late afternoon when, after traversing to and from many different parts of the city over the course of the day, River had her chauffer/hostage finally settle them down in a large city park in one of the most affluent neighborhoods of Capital City. Across the broad lake that the green space centered around she had an unobstructed view of the sky and would be able to spot any approaching craft easily. Now it was just a matter of waiting. Since she had escaped the reaches of the Alliance's search perimeter and gone mobile, she had very little worry of being located now. In fact, the greatest risk her plan had faced so far was slipping past the Alliance checkpoint near the apartment complex. As she had anticipated, the search for her had expanded in area overnight. Fortunately, her hostage managed to give a passable performance to the soldiers who stopped them on their way out of the neighborhood. River hid in the refrigerated cargo area, chilled and nearly dizzied by the dense aromas of so many flowers in the confined space, listening with both her physical and mental senses to the act going on outside. The same soldiers had admitted the craft into the area, and they were not imaginative enough to conceive that anyone could have stowed away in the vehicle after such a short stop. Despite the delivery man's somewhat less than steady demeanor, it was not enough to trigger any alarm bells and warrant a second inspection of the cargo hold, so they were waved through without incident. Since then, boredom had been the biggest challenge she had encountered, which was not insignificant as she continued to struggle to keep her emotions in check and her mind focused on her task. She found a tiny modicum of respite from that constant battle by spending time in the hold with the flowers. They became a real-life surrogate to her meditative garden which she could no longer retreat to given her current situation. Her apparent inattention while she sought solace there predictably led to an ill-advised attempt by her hostage to trick her into letting him escape or getting them both caught. However, her awareness of his intentions made it simple to put a stop to those schemes. After his second try, she carefully explained to him that although she had no desire to kill him, neither did she have any particular need to keep him alive. If he became more of a hindrance or a threat than a help, she warned, she had no issue with shuffling him off. He wisely decided not to challenge her any more after that.

After several hours sitting of in the park, the stress of his ordeal and the inactivity of waiting eventually got to the man and he had fallen asleep in the pilot's chair. Meanwhile River maintained her vigil, her eyes constantly peeled towards the sky for the telltale glint ships. She knew they would arrive eventually, and sure enough, just as afternoon rolled into evening, she spied three craft approaching from the northwest. She woke her hostage roughly with shake of his shoulder.

"Take off," she commanded. "Follow those ships and land where they do."

"Wha… where are we going?" he asked, rubbing his sleep-muddled eyes.

"Fly," River leveled at him, her gun adding the exclamation point that her voice did not carry. His expression promptly filled with apprehension and he rapidly set to beginning the ignition sequence. Swallowing roughly, he brought his ship to life and eased them out over the water, following the heading of the three ships. It took them barely two minutes to reach their destination, a large estate just on the other side of the lake. The three vehicles were already resting beneath them on the landing pad that extended out from the house.

"Land there," River directed. The delivery man slowed his ship and circled around on approach. She felt his anxiety ratchet up a degree as he spied the small group of soldiers that were glancing up at them. River slipped out of her seat and moved behind her pilot.

"After you land," she gathered his attention by tapping her gun against the back of his neck and speaking close to his ear, "you will get out and tell the soldiers that you have a delivery. They will most likely want to inspect the ship. Let them. Then stay out of the way."

"What's gonna happen?" he asked uneasily, half turning around to try to look at her.

"Don't," she stopped him. "Just do what I said." The man gave a tight nod and fired the ventral thrusters. The ship shuddered lightly as it eased towards the ground. River moved back into the cargo hold and shut the interior door. She crouched down and checked her pistol. Slapping in her full spare magazine, she cocked the slide and flicked off the safety. Then she closed her eyes and took a deep breath, flooding her body with the scent of the flowers. When she opened her eyes a second later, the motley colors of the blooms all around her had changed. The crimson of the carnations and roses had darkened to the shade of bruises. The yellow daisies and chrysanthemums were gray and pale like sunlight shining through fog. Conversely, the blues stood out in stark contrast, the single tiny cornflower she had ordered now taking on a deep indigo hue. The light had also intensified even in the dim confines of the hold, casting every corner and edge into sharp relief. She felt the ship touch the ground and she extended her awareness to its fullest, gathering in the thoughts and sensations of the minds around her. She heard the delivery man exit the cockpit and felt his words resonate through her brain, echoed a split second later as her ears picked them up through the walls of the cargo hold when he spoke.

"Hi, uh… got a delivery here for you," he said. Even muted by the walls of the compartment, the tension in his voice was evident.

"What is it?" one of the four soldiers she had counted on the tarmac inquired of him. He was already wary.

"Just flowers… obviously." The man's nervousness could not be hidden and he was setting the other soldier's minds on edge now, too.

"Check it out," the first soldier told his comrades. "You stay there," he advised the delivery man, and River felt a jolt of fright from her hostage as a rifle was moved in his direction.

"Hey, I'm just the delivery guy," he said appeasingly.

"Let's see some ID." While the first soldier dealt with her reluctant accomplice, River heard the other three moving around to the rear of the ship. She sensed them taking up a standard defensive formation, one on each side of the door and the third a few paces away, covering it. Her grip tensed on her gun. The latch of the rear door snapped back and a shaft of light pierced through the seams.

Before the door was open all the way, River had already begun running. In the three or four paces of space between the forward bulkhead and end of the hold, she accelerated to full speed. Timed perfectly, she reached the door just as it was fully pulled back, and leaped into the air. Her jump transformed into a flying kick that smashed into the chest of the soldier standing outside. Although his rifle was at the ready, he had no time to raise it further to counter her ambush. He went down hard on his back without firing a shot, his helmet and gun clattering against the concrete landing pad. River rolled off of him and bounced up to her knees, swinging back to the other two soldiers by the ship. They were already reacting, but they were not fast enough. River plugged the first one with a shot to the head and the second with two hits in his center of mass. The second managed to squeeze off a few rounds, but it was mostly a reflex reaction. The bullets ricocheted harmlessly off the ground.

"Mother-humpin'…!" she heard the soldier checking the delivery man's ID exclaim, and she darted behind the delivery vehicle as he sprayed a burst of automatic fire her way. River sensed him taking cover behind the front of the ship, and she turned her attention to the last two people on the tarmac, her targets. Staring from beside the civilian transport tucked between the two military-issue SREVs, she met the incredulous stare of Major General Kriegel. The meeting of their gazes lasted mere fractions of a second, and then Kriegel was reaching for his sidearm. River was faster, though, and she placed a perfectly accurate shot right into his left kneecap before he could get his gun out of its holster. Screaming in pain, Kriegel collapsed onto the landing pad. Breaking cover, River strode with deadly purpose towards him. She sensed the instant the last soldier spotted her coming out from behind the delivery ship, and she dropped to one knee out of his line of fire just as he pulled the trigger. Bullets whistled millimeters over her shoulder, but she ignored them, easily dispatching the soldier with two more shots from her pistol. Then she turned back to Kriegel.

"Don't move," she issued the order in a placid tone utterly vacant of emotion and pointed her sight at the major general's head. Face screwed up in agony, Kriegel stopped reaching for his gun and raised his hands slowly. "Nicholas," she called without taking her eyes from Kriegel. "Come out and help your dad."

"No! Stay there!" Kriegel countermanded urgently. River looked up into the passenger seat of the transport, at the fourteen year old boy frozen there, his eyes riveted on her in terror.

"Get out, or I will kill your father," she stated to the teen. Kriegel's son did not move. Without even a glance to aim, River blasted another shot through Kriegel's other kneecap. Kriegel writhed in agony and bit his lip, muffling his cries.

"Okay! Okay! Don't hurt him!" the boy broke his silence with a desperate plea.

"Get out," River repeated. Nicholas Kriegel leveraged himself out of his seat with shaky arms and dropped to the ground next to his father. "Help him up," River told him. After a second of hesitation, the boy bent down and threw his father's arm over his shoulder. He struggled to lift him, though, and Kriegel made a valiant effort to rise despite his pain, but it was clear Nicholas was not strong enough on his own. "Come help them," River turned to the delivery man who had been cowering next to his ship since the firefight erupted. He stared at her, frightened and uncertain. "If you want to live, come here and help them," River glowered at him. Rising none too steadily to his feet, he shuffled slowly towards the transport, his gaze flicking towards River every few seconds in frightened distrust. When he reached the other two, he bent down and took the injured man's other arm. He and Nicholas then hoisted the major general to his feet, a piteous groan emanating from the officer as they did. While they held him up, River moved forward and began frisking him. She removed his sidearm and Cortex unit. Stepping back, she threw Kriegel's gun into the open hatch of the transport, but kept ahold of his portable device.

"You feng wu quing shui xing yang hua!" Kriegel snarled at her, flecks of spittle flying from his lips as he did. She did not react to his insult.

"Put him in your ship," she indicated to the delivery man. He shared a brief, uncertain look with Nicholas, but River only had to snap the safety of her pistol off to convince them to do as she bid. With Kriegel suppressing grunts of pain the entire way, they slowly helped the hobbled man into the cargo hold of the delivery vehicle. River hopped in behind them. Shutting the door, she holstered her pistol and put the Cortex unit on one of the shelves of flowers. "Fly us away from here," she told the delivery driver after he helped settle Kriegel on the floor of the hold.

"Where to?" he blinked at her. She gave him a heading. "No tricks," she reminded him, tossing him a cautionary glare. The delivery man nodded vigorously, eager to stay in her good graces, and exited the hold for the cockpit. Seconds later the ship vibrated to life and lifted off from the landing pad.

As the craft banked gently away, River knelt down and examined Kriegel's damaged knees. He hissed and bit back the pain as she gingerly touched the shredded fabric and flesh at the edge of one of the wounds.

"Leave him alone!" Nicholas protested, although without any real force in his voice.

"I'm examining his wounds," River explained patiently without looking at the boy. Then she took her jacket and draped it carefully over Kriegel's legs. The man's face screwed up in renewed agony. "That should help. The cold will slow the bleeding as well," she surmised.

"What do you care?" Kriegel retorted, his words cracking with pain and scorn.

"Contrary to what you think, Major General, I do not want to kill you," answered River, still fussing with the jacket. "I want you to live. Whenever your knees ache from now on, I want you to remember this day. I want you to remember how everything you cherished most was unexpectedly ripped away from you because of what you've done. I want you to re-live the helplessness when you remember how I killed your son in front of you because you would not do what I asked. I want you to feel the guilt and anguish every time you recall how you failed to save your wife. I want you to suffer for your deeds, and therefore you have to live." She flicked her eyes casually up to Kriegel's face and saw true horror dawning in his eyes. This was not the fight-or-flight panic of the moment. This was the torment of him looking into the future and seeing what she had just forecast, and knowing full well she had the power to make it true. It was a life of misery and guilt and anguish and pain that he could barely conceive of. He was finally starting to understand.

"You killed my mom?" Nicholas broke in. His voice still trembled, but there was an edge of strength growing in it.

"Yes," River turned to him and confirmed matter-of-factly, then returned to tending to Kriegel's legs. The attack came not five seconds later.

Although she had expected something like it eventually, the speed with which the decision was made, so absolutely on the spur of the moment, nearly caught her off guard. She just barely felt it coming in enough time to jerk to her right, causing the flower pot Nicholas brought down on her to shatter against her back, throwing dirt everywhere. The blow still hurt like hell, but at least he had missed her head or neck. She spun around in the same motion and was met by Nicholas' enraged fists. The husky teenager came at her with the strength of an almost full-grown man. But despite his size advantage, he still fought with a child's fury, flailing in berserk fashion. There was little room to maneuver in the confines of the hold, but she was able to block his first swing and dodge the second. Grabbing his wrist as the second punch flew past, she twisted the joint until she felt the tendons pop and creak beneath her fingers, bones strained to the point of breaking. Nicholas hollered and buckled to his knees, paralyzed by the pain. River drew her gun and pressed it against his head.

"No!" cried Kriegel in a panic, but he could do nothing more. River stared down at the back of the boy's head, holding him prone.

"He doesn't know why this is happening. Would you like to explain it to him, or should I?" she shot a questing look at Kriegel. "Don't you think he deserves to know at this point? Your wife died without having a clue. Surely your son deserves more than that." Kriegel's eyes darted frantically between his whimpering child and River's indomitably unsympathetic expression.

"Please don't kill him," he begged.

"Then do what I asked."

"I can't. I don't have that authority," he insisted. River scrutinized his panic-stricken face for a moment with the signature tilt of her chin.

"But you know who does."

"Yes," Kriegel verified, holding her gaze with desperate intent. River's sight turned inward as she purposefully plunged into his thoughts. She saw a dark-skinned, dark-haired man who looked distressingly familiar, although the name attached to him was not. She could not place where she had seen him before, although she was all but certain she had. It took a long second before something in one of the deepest corners of her memory finally clicked, and her eyes widened with the epiphany. He was one of them! Their names she never learned, and she only knew their faces as grotesque distortions from her nightmares, but their memories had terrorized her brain with excruciating clarity. In one fleeting moment of that single encounter, their horrendous secrets had inadvertently spilled into her. Her life, already shattered by the Academy, was instantly and irrevocably altered in a way no one could have foreseen. He had been there at the beginning, and here he was at the end as well. Considering that he was someone important enough to have personally observed her at the Academy, it made sense that he would have the power to release Serenity as Kreigel believed. But she still had to convince him to do so. She got the impression from Kriegel's mind that he was not someone who deigned to have his authority challenged. He was a man of extraordinary means, and he had already gone to supreme lengths to neutralize and recover her. However, he was not beyond resorting to measures similar to her own if he deemed them a prudent method of forcing her into submission. She could not risk him retaliating against her friends by going after him in the same way she had with Kriegel. Fortunately, she understood now, she did not have to. She already had everything she needed to take away what he valued most. If he refused, all she had to do was make the price beyond what he even he was willing to pay. He would release Serenity. Her eyes refocused on Kriegel who was tensely awaiting her reaction. She released his son's wrist and let Nicholas collapse to the floor of the hold, discarded and dismissed. Grabbing the major general's Cortex unit from the shelf, she tossed it into his lap.

"Wave him," she said.

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