Chapter 19

River awoke on a cot in a room with flat, smooth walls and a garish light from overhead. The illumination pierced through her closed lids, giving her a headache. When she did open her eyes, she tried to sit but barely got halfway up before falling back with a groan. Every internal organ felt bruised and battered, like she had just lost a boxing match. She lay still for a long while, her ribcage aching with each breath. In too much pain to attempt getting up again, she craned her sore neck around to look at her surroundings. The room she was in was a spare and plain cube of solid concrete. The light from above came from a recessed fixture in the ceiling. In one corner next to the cot stood a stainless steel latrine. Across from her, a heavy metal door was set flush within the wall, a small square window the only access to the outside. She glanced down at herself and noticed that her clothes were gone as well. She was now dressed in a familiar complement of close-fitting gray leggings and a matching sleeveless tunic. If there was any lingering doubt in her mind about where she was, it was gone now. Her body started to tremble involuntarily and her stomach felt hollowed out, like a hole had been punched through it. She was back. Of course, she had expected to end up here, and had in fact even arranged it. She had known the consequences of her bargain when she made it. But knowing it and actually waking up to it were two different things. Now it was real. And that reality brought with it all the terrible memories she had been running from for so long. Emotions came roaring over her like an avalanche. This was it. This would be her world now and forever after, these four walls and the torments inside her head. Everything else was gone. Simon, her parents, her friends on Serenity. All of her past life, it might as well have been a dream. There would be no escape this time. She thought her chest would crack from the terrible pain that swelled within it, so she turned her mental back on the thoughts and memories, fleeing desperately into her garden, but there was no solace to be found there anymore. Clouds shut out the sky with their boiling, angry masses, drenching her in a deluge. The rain dulled the colors and made the flowers wilt and fade. Their petals drooped as she walked among them. Even this she could not hold on to. Something inside her finally broke, and she collapsed to the ground and wailed. But the rain pounded down and drowned her cries. Outside, her body shook with silent sobs.

She cried until she literally had no more tears left to give. Then she laid there, not moving or even thinking. She felt like she was nothing but a hollow shell, drained of everything but sorrow. She wanted to go back to sleep again and forget it all. She wished she would fall asleep and never wake up. Then the lies and the distortions would fade. The pain would fade. She would fade, become nothing, and it would finally end.

"Hello, River," a slightly over-amplified voice emanating from ceiling startled her. She jerked upright on her cot, feeling some of the residual soreness still. Peering through tear-crusted eyes at window, she saw a round-faced man with a mop of black hair looking back at her. She recalled him, always shadowing Dr. Matthias.

"Dr. Qin," her flat statement came out.

"That's right. I'm very glad to see you again. I know you're probably still a bit unsettled right now, but we have a lot of work to do to get you back to your old self, so we should get started. Please come to the door." Though his voice was cordial and pleasant, the direction was an order. Numbly, she rose from her bed and did as instructed. She had no will to fight him. What was the point now? If she did, they would simply force her to comply in one way or another. They had methods. "Place your arm through the slot, please," Dr. Qin told her when she reached the door. She slid her right arm through the opening that appeared in the door just above her waist. She felt a prick and heard the hiss of an injection gun. "Just a little something to keep you from harming yourself until you're readjusted," said the doctor. "Let's give that a little bit to start working, and I'll be right back." He departed with a meaningless smile.

By the time he returned less than five minutes later, River was slumped against the wall, too weak to stand anymore. Through her dulled senses, she was minutely aware of strong hands lifting her roughly and setting her on something. Thick straps were fastened about her wrists, chest, and ankles. She thought she might be moving, but her head was lolling so much she could not be sure that was the case, and her eyes would not stay open.

"… put her first through the basic stimulus test to assess the status of her conditioning." Dr. Qin's voice reverberated in her head like it was an echo chamber.

"Fine… better have been worth it…" A second voice that was familiar but unidentifiable bounced around inside her skull. She fought to retain some awareness, but it was slipping away by the second. Before she arrived at wherever she was being taken, she was unconscious.

Sunlight… the musky scent of moist earth… blades of grass sliding between her toes. She was darting, fleet of foot, across the lawn. Turning, she saw Simon racing behind her. He was younger, just barely a man, though he still grinned like a child with the thrill of the chase. She grinned as well. He would have to do better than that to catch her. Shrieking with exuberance, she put on a burst of speed. The two of them charged down the gentle slope of grass until it leveled out against a tall hedge. Her path blocked, she skidded to a stop in front of it.

"Got you!" Simon plowed into her and fell to the ground, gasping for breath.

"Look, Simon! Hodgeberries!" she exclaimed to him, forgetting whatever game they had been playing as she stared at the purple berry clusters lining the hedge. Simon rolled onto his stomach and looked up.

"Wow! They're huge!" He bolted to his feet. She was already kneeling at the base of the hedge, looking curiously at the berries.

"I wonder if they grew wild."

"I don't know," Simon answered, grabbing a bunch and picking one off the stem. He tossed it into his mouth. "They're ripe, though. Delicious! I've never seen them this big before." She kept staring at the berries, like they were the most entrancing thing in the Verse. "River?" She blinked and looked up at her brother. "Aren't you going to try one?" he asked. She smiled, delicately plucking one from the bush and placing it on her tongue. She closed her eyes as she drew it into her mouth and bit down on it, savoring the sweet juice. They were ripe and delicious. Beside her, Simon was alternately eating and making a pile now. "We should take some home. Mom can make a pie out of them."

"Yes," she agreed and started collecting some herself. She could taste the acidic sweetness as she took a bite of another of the berries. The grass tickled the backs of her bare knees and legs where she sat, and the sun warmed her dark hair…

…The ground beneath her suddenly turned cold and hard. The soft yet prickly blades of grass disappeared and were replaced by a seat of flat steel, its chill biting into the backs of her thighs. The sunlight was gone. She was sitting in a dark room now with only one light. Goose bumps stood out on her bare arms and she shivered, though not just due to the temperature. A man sat across a table from her, a doctor from his look. He acted pleasantly, but he felt as cold and impersonal as the room.

"I would like to see my brother," she requested. She wanted to see him, needed to see him. She was struggling to make sense of the frightening and confusing changes happening to her. The things they did to her hurt. And the voices… she heard the voices all the time now. She saw faces of people she did not know, had never known. Some of them talked to her. And sometimes it was real people who talked to her, but without speaking or saying a word. She did not know if it was real, and she was afraid. She had to see Simon. He would know what was real. She wrote a letter to him, but he never wrote back. Or, at least, she thought she had written to him. It was so hard to remember things now, and that threw on more doubt. Her memories seemed so distant and out of focus. Was it all a dream? she found herself wondering. Nothing was certain anymore.

"Well you can write to him if you like…"

"I need to. I would like please to see him," she spoke over the doctor's suggestion, her voice hushed with strain.

"Well, I'm sure he's very busy," the doctor made an excuse after a few seconds, and she realized with sickening devastation that Simon would never answer her letters, would never see her. The doctor never said it, but she knew all the same. She was all alone.

"Yes…" she whispered, feeling the hopelessness swallowing her heart. "Yes, I'm sure." Her reality was falling away…

River awoke with another pounding headache. Her first conscious thought was utter confusion, but reality quickly sunk its teeth into her when she saw the walls of her cell again. She rose sluggishly to sit on her cot with her head in her hands. The smell of food wafted into her nostrils and caused her stomach to heave. She looked up and saw a tray on the floor near the door. She was not hungry, despite not having had anything to eat for what she guessed was more than twenty-four hours. In her current state, she frankly considered just starving herself. However, she dismissed that notion roughly as soon as it came to mind. Starvation was slow and painful, and the Academy would find ways to prevent it, feeding her intravenously or some other such manner. A sorrowful sigh escaped her. She sat with her legs dangling over the edge of the cot, shoulders hunched. Then, gritting through the pain in her head, she stood up. The cold of the unbroken slab of painted concrete stung her bare feet. Trying to ignore both the physical and emotional aches that were threatening to overwhelm her again, she stepped carefully and stiffly towards the door. Reaching it, she raised on her toes slightly to glimpse out the window. The ghostly face peering back from the hall outside startled her, and she actually recoiled a step before realizing that it was her own reflection she was seeing. After a second's pause to absorb the shock, she looked at herself in the glass again. Her cheeks were puffy and swollen, probably from crying, but at the same time they also appeared hollow and drawn. Her hair was a greasy, disheveled mess, and if it had been in its previously longer state it surely would have been an unmanageable tangle of knots. She turned her head slowly from side to side, keeping her eyes on her face. She could not believe that was her. She looked at least twice her age, like someone who had experienced the full measure of life's harshness for a decade or more. Was the girl she had been gone entirely? Had she every really been there? Maybe that was never her in the first place. What if the personality of Ariel was never something that the Academy instilled in her at all? Perhaps it had always been there and they just isolated it and honed it for a specific purpose. After all, she had murdered Eileen Kriegel and been prepared to kill the major general's son if need be without Ariel's agency. So if that was within her all along, what did that say about who she really was? It was too much for her battered mind to handle right now, though, so she slunk across the floor and sank down next to the tray of food, picking at it despite her nausea.

Seconds later, muffled noises from outside distracted her from her lackluster attempt at eating. Curious despite her languor, she got up and went to the window. Outside, in the cell across the hall from her, two orderlies were engaged in battle with a young boy. Battle was the operative word, for despite being only eleven or twelve by her estimation, the boy thrashed and clawed and snarled like a feng zi. One of the men was trying to hold on to the boy's upper body while the other wrangled his legs in an attempt to place him on a gurney complete with padded restraints. As it went on, River found she could not tear her eyes from the struggle. Through the walls she could feel the boy's mind, and it sent her trembling. He knew nothing but pure, unadulterated terror. Lurking behind every face, every object, and in every corner was a sinister shadow waiting to leap out and devour him. It gave rise to the incoherent rage with which he fought. The animalistic instinct to survive at all costs was the only way his mind could defend itself. There was no child left in him. He was a vessel of fear and pain. The sensations were so horrifying and powerful that River eventually fell to her knees with dry heaves. Only bile and the few bits of food she had managed to swallow came back up. Out of her sight, the battle continued with the boy screaming and wailing inhumanly. The only thing she could liken the sound of it to was that of a Reaver. She pulled herself to her feet and looked through the window again. The orderlies had gotten him onto the gurney and hurried to secure the straps. His back bucked and arched against them, spittle flying from his writhing head. River watched, paralyzed, unable to comprehend the travesty of what he had become. It was wrong beyond any possible justification. And suddenly the anger was there. Rage, so blind it almost equaled the boy's, ignited an inferno inside her. Without realizing it, she was screaming and pounding on her door. The orderlies paid her no heed, the window suffocating her screams, but she continued without thought or reason. As the boy was wheeled away, she clawed at the seams of the door. Then she grabbed her food tray and hurled it against the window. Food splattered everywhere, but the window held. She flung herself against the steel portal, pounding on it some more, but the boy was gone. The blaze inside of her started dying, and she slowly sank to the floor, her anger turning to tears.

Why? Why such a child? Her questions went unanswered as she buried her head in her knees, her back against the door. This is my punishment. I deserve this. But not him. For perhaps the first time ever, she actually thought about the others like her. On one hand, she always knew that they were there, but she had never seen them. The Academy isolated all of its subjects. The only contact she ever had during her first incarceration was with the doctors and staff, and she was always so wrapped up in her own mental turmoil that she had never considered the rest. Maybe that was what they wanted, to remove all empathy, to isolate her completely inside and out, and to break every human bond except the one between master and servant. And even after her escape, she had spent all of her time mired in her own torment and misery. She had become a monster, and done terrible things because of it. But she had not once considered what was happening to the other subjects, not even when Dr. Harder had talked about what he had observed before he fled. Now that she had seen it, though, she could not not think about it. She realized with sickening humility and shame just how selfish she had been. This was something larger than just her, and far more insidious. People –children—were being tortured and forced to become remorseless slaves, murderers, and assassins. But, in a moment of clarity, she realized that her fate was not theirs, at least not yet. She had been able to fight back against the Alliance's manipulations. She had used what they had created against them to save her friends and had given up everything in the process, but she saw now that her struggle was not over. She was the only one who had the strength to stand up to them, to stand up for the rest of their victims who could not. She could give them back what the Academy had taken from her. She could give them the freedom to live their lives as they chose. In a way, they were her family, brothers and sisters in mind and spirit. And if nothing else, she knew how to protect her family. She could help them. She had to help them. The resolve which had seen her through the ordeal to free Serenity once again boiled up and solidified inside her like red-hot steel. The Academy had to be stopped, and she was the only one who could stop them.

Driven by her purpose, she paced her room for what seemed like hours, evaluating plans and options. Escaping with the other subjects was an impossibility. Even if most of them were in better condition than the boy, there was no way she could keep them under control and sneak out at the same time. Plus, she had no idea how many there were. However, the Academy had to keep records. If she could get her hands on them and somehow smuggle them out, that would be the evidence she needed to bring the blade down upon the Academy's neck. The tricky part, though, was getting out. She knew there were ways. She remembered her escape with Simon. The access shaft would not be easy, but she might be able to manage it if she could get away unnoticed. Timing would be everything. Fear and uncertainty threatened her nerves, but it was not for herself that she was worried this time. She feared failing the others. No one would speak for them if she did not make it. That was why she had to succeed. There was no other option.

Sounds outside her door stopped her pacing, and she went again to the window. The orderlies were wheeling the young boy back to his cell. He was silent, asleep or unconscious on the gurney this time. The fear within him was heavily muted, but still palpable to her. The orderlies unstrapped him and placed him on the floor of his cell, apparently deciding that carrying him the extra three steps to the cot was beyond the scope of their duties. She felt infinitely sorry for the boy, and fixed a murderous glare on the two men as they exited. Neither of them saw her, and she wondered how they could perform their duties day in and day out without so much as a shred of conscience for what they did. They had to have normal lives on the outside, maybe even families and children of their own. How could they treat a child like that so callously then? Was that what the Academy did to normal people as well? All the doctors, attendants, and researchers living separate lives on the outside, ignoring or accepting what they did in here? But they at least had the freedom to make that choice. Her resolve only strengthened further.

River was not sure what time it was when Dr. Qin came for her again. With her sleepless plotting and the lack of any external stimuli to synchronize her internal clock to, it could have just as equally been morning or evening. Dr. Qin peered through her window and noted her upturned tray of food and the mess it had left.

"You haven't been eating very well," he commented through the intercom.

"I'm not hungry."

"You have to keep your strength up. If you don't eat, we may have to put you on a special diet." She ignored his comment, although her rage simmered at how blithely he took for granted that he could force her to do what he wanted. "We're going to try something today that requires you to be awake, so I expect your utmost cooperation. However, just as a precaution…" he trailed off, and the slot in the door snapped open. Her anger stoking her defiance, River refused to move at first. She did not want to be drugged again. But, her rational mind interjected, if she was not going to be sedated this time, she was likely to remain conscious while she was out of her cell, and maybe even be free to move. That gave her a chance to gather some valuable reconnaissance for her plan, and she could not squander that opportunity. She would have to play along. Suppressing her disgust behind a blank stare, she put her arm through the door and allowed Dr. Qin to give her the injection. In less than a minute, her muscles all began to feel extremely weak, and her extremities went numb. Soon she collapsed into a lifeless heap on the floor. She was still awake and alert, but except for her eyes, every voluntary muscle group was unable to move. She heard her door slide open and four of the burliest orderlies filled her vision as they closed around her. Despite her apparently incapacitated state, their wary thoughts and postures indicated they expected trouble. Dr. Qin, on the other hand, exuded complete confidence that she posed no danger now. Regardless, when he rolled in a wheelchair, the orderlies took to strapping her down to it. The doctor then maneuvered out of her room and through the hall, an orderly walking with them at each corner like a sentinel. She could not move her head since it was lashed to the headrest of the chair to keep it from slumping over, but her eyes were free to roam, and her mental awareness was wide open. As they passed the rows of cell doors, she sensed at least a dozen, perhaps more, individual minds behind them. Some were in the same hideous state as the little boy, and some were a bit more lucid, but all were suffering. If she had not been paralyzed, she was not sure she would have been able to control the anger churning within her.

After leaving the patient ward, she was wheeled by her escorts through a series of twists and turns down various corridors, all of which she committed to memory. She sought to catch a glimpse of each offshooting room and hall, trying to discern what its purpose was or where it led by sight or by using her ability to scan the nearby minds. Before long she had a pretty general understanding of her location within the layout of the facility thus far, and she began to analyze how to incorporate that into her plan. Her analysis was interrupted when Dr. Qin turned her into a doorway and brought her to a halt before an all too reminiscent device. Her heart skipped a beat as she looked upon the chair in which she had been sitting the day Simon broke her out. A bubble of terrible regret and sadness tried to close off her throat as she thought of her brother and what he had gone through to reach her then, but she choked it down with dogged determination. Simon could not help her anymore, and she could not change that. But she could do for the rest of the Academy's prisoners what he had done for her. She had to stay focused on that and not let her emotions get in the way. Setting stoicism to her thoughts, she did not react as the orderlies undid her restraints and physically carried her into the exam chair before securing her to it.

"Thank you, gentlemen," Dr. Qin then dismissed them. "The drugs will keep her compliant for now. I'll call you when we're through." He smiled and the orderlies wandered out, the last one shutting the door behind him. While the doctor's assistant came and started fixing electrodes to her face and scalp, Dr. Qin stepped to the other side of the chair. "Now just relax, River," he told her as the chair leaned back and lowered. "We're going to do a little free association exercise to see where you're at."

For the next hour, River was kept paralyzed while she was subjected to various verbal cues from Dr. Qin, as well as visual ones from the monitor that hung above her. She was neither asked nor expected to respond, and in fact neither of the two researchers paid her any actual attention whatsoever once the test began. Their only interest, she gathered, was the effect each of the cues had on her psychological state. While they watched their monitors and documented her reactions, River had no choice but to endure their ministrations. The cues were mostly random, but occasionally and without warning something deeply connected to her life would pop up, like Dr. Qin reading out the address of her parents' house, Simon's name in Chinese characters appearing on the screen, and even a short vid of Eileen Kriegel at some sort of formal banquet. By the end of it, despite her will to endure, she was taxed to her emotional limit. When it was over, Dr. Qin's assistant came beside her again and returned the chair to its normal upright position while the scientist finished examining the results at his workstation. Shortly afterward, the four orderlies returned and unceremoniously heaved her into the wheelchair, repeating the ritual of strapping her down before she was removed from the exam room.

"The paralysis should start to wear off soon, so make sure you return her to her room promptly," Dr. Qin instructed them. On the way out, he beamed at her. "That was a very productive session, River. I'm looking forward to working with you some more." River's eyes bored into his with unrestrained loathing. She hated the man. She hated him for what he had done to her, and for what he had done to others like her. She hated him for his nonchalance and arrogance. She hated all of them. If she could have killed them with a thought, she would not have hesitated a picosecond in slaughtering them all. Unfortunately, that was not a power she was gifted with, and so her silent vitriol went unnoticed as the doctor returned to his work. By the time the orderlies brought her back to the patient ward, she was wishing furiously that she could beat them all to a pulp, if for nothing more than the catharsis it would bring. If she could just move! At the very least then she could scratch the itch that had developed where the straps around her ankles were rubbing against the tops of her feet. She tried to focus on something else to block out the sensation, but it was driving her to infuriating levels of annoyance.

Wait… how come I can feel it? Her thoughts came to a screeching halt. Forgetting the irritating sensation, she took rapid stock of the rest of her body and realized that the numbness that had been smothering her was beginning to fade. A thrill of hope coursed through her system. If she could feel again, maybe she was able to move, too. Shifting her eyes between the chair's armrests, she focused on her fingers as she commanded them to flex. The tendons tightened, twitching in response. Adrenaline surging now, she tried to move her feet next. While the orderlies paused her before her cell door, she very carefully curled her toes. She did not quite have full control of their movement, the tactile sensations reaching her brain still feeling distant and muddled, but it was clear that the drug was wearing off fast, faster than Dr. Qin had anticipated apparently. With hardly a breath to consider what that meant, River made her choice. She had to act now. Even though her plan was far from fully formed, if she waited for another moment as opportune as this, it might be too late. By then they might have completely stripped her of her free will, or worse. She could not risk that. She did not have a choice.

The orderlies wheeled her into her cell while she counted her pounding heartbeats as they thundered in her ears, waiting for the right moment. None of the four were nearly as vigilant as they had been on their first encounter with her. Her mental senses told her that they all assumed she was still safely paralyzed. Two of them stood around and jawed while one started freeing her wrists. Another knelt down to undo her ankle restraints from the chair. As soon as the straps around her arms and legs were free, she struck. She snapped her leg up like a whip, catching the man at her feet in the jaw. The impact flung him backwards where he cracked his head on the edge of the cot behind him and went limp. At the almost the same instant, she slammed her elbow into the other man's conveniently located man-parts. He sank to the floor with bulging eyes and nary a sound escaping from his gaping mouth. The moment of stunned disbelief that froze the two remaining orderlies was all the time she needed to tear off the last restraints from her head and torso. In the next instant, the nearest man reached out to grab her, but she more or less rolled out of the chair and tumbled into his legs. He toppled face-first into the wheelchair and landed on top of her hard enough to make her see stars, but she did not stop moving. She kicked one leg out and caught the other orderly in the side of the knee. The joint jerked sideways in an unnatural motion and he collapsed with a shriek of pain. Rolling out from beneath the man still half on top of her, she struggled to her knees. The orderly was moaning, his mouth a bloody mess where it had contacted some part of the chair, and he did not have the presence of mind to keep River from climbing on top of him. With one knee on his chest, she drove the other one down on his neck. He uttered a strangled gasp, his eyes wide in terror, before she felt the vertebrae snap beneath her. A shudder shook his entire body before he was still. She struggled to get off of him, her legs still weak and rubbery. Staggering, she willed herself upright and turned to the man whose knee she had dislocated. He was trying to use the cot to leverage himself up, grunting in pain. He was the largest of the four, but without the ability to stand, his size was no advantage against her. She simply grabbed his head and slammed it several times into the steel frame of the cot. He dropped senselessly to the floor, a lurid gash oozing crimson down his forehead. The last conscious man was the one she had given the elbow to, and he was just now making it to his hands and knees. He made one futile call for help before River rammed her knee into his nose, obliterating the cartilage and knocking him onto his back. He did not get up again.

Panting and making an extra effort to control her still somewhat discombobulated muscles, River leaned against the wall for temporary support. She knew she could not linger, though. Glancing up at the ceiling, she could not see it, but there was certainly a camera there somewhere. It would only be a matter of minutes, or maybe seconds, before someone noticed what was going on in her cell. She had to keep moving. With a quick assessment, she pegged the man who had hit the back of his head on the cot as the smallest, and she hurried over to his lifeless body. She jerked the shirt off of his slumping form, then shoved him over and stripped him of his pants and booties as well. Encouraged that her limbs were feeling more like normal with each passing second, she hurriedly donned the orderly's uniform , snatched his keycard, and bolted from her cell. Shutting and locking the door behind her, she was about to dash for the exit out of the cell block when a transient thought caused her to hesitate. Glancing to her left, she looked at the door to the young boy's room. She padded over to it and peered inside. The boy was there, sleeping on his cot. His cheeks twitched intermittently and his mouth screwed up in a grimace. Distantly, River could sense the faint stirrings of a nightmare haunting his sleep. Remembering how clearly she had read Dr. Harder and Anna's minds once before, she sent her thoughts full of fierce strength towards him.

You're not alone. Stay strong. I'm going to help you, I promise. Although she could not be sure if he had heard her mental reassurance, the child's grimace faded and slackened and he seemed to relax. Then, with thoughts of him boosting her resolve, River set off to keep her word.

She did not waste time trying to avoid being seen, but just marched through the corridors as if she belonged. She sensed that her unkempt appearance and the fact that she was wearing a uniform that was clearly several sizes too large for her caused the few staff members she encountered to give her a second look, but she was not concerned about them. She had to move fast to find Dr. Qin, and she sought him out in the last place she knew he had been. Sliding open the door to the exam room, she found the researcher still at his computer station, alone and engrossed in his work.

"Dr. Qin," she said after the door had slid shut behind her.

"What is it?" the doctor asked casually, without recognition. It was only after he turned to face her that he realized who he was speaking to. "Wha…" he gasped, aghast, but that was the extent of his exclamation as River rushed him and slammed him into the wall with her shoulder. The recent fury she had held towards him now returned with a vengeance, and she pressed her forearm against his throat. He gagged and gasped, his eyes filled with terror, but he was at her mercy and her wrath was begging to be unleashed upon him. The memory of the boy in his cell was suddenly in her mind, though, and she fought back the desire to take her revenge. This was not about her any longer. It was about that boy, and all the others like him. Still, as Dr. Qin struggled against the force of her arm pinching his windpipe shut, she did not spare him a glare of pure hatred.

"Where are your patient files?" she hissed. He tried to claw at her face in response, but she drove her knee into the soft paunch of his abdomen. The impact would have made him wheeze, except that the air in his stomach had nowhere to go. His eyes bulged out and his already red face shaded towards purple. "Where are they?" she demanded again. It did not matter that he could not speak. She just needed to get an image from his mind. It came quickly as he struggled for his life. She clearly saw the corridor just outside the exam room leading to a t-junction. The vision made a right turn there, then another right turn where it dead-ended at a security door. She saw the card reader and keypad next to door and watched as a card was slid into it. "What is the security code?" she asked. A sequence of digits drifted through his thoughts and she snatched it from him. "Thank you," she said without inflection. Then she leaned her entire weight against his neck. The doctor's mouth opened wide in a fruitless attempt to gasp, but his trachea was completely crushed beneath her arm. He jerked and spasmed, his flailing growing weaker. Finally, his eyes rolled back into his head and she sensed his mind slip into unconsciousness. She let him roll to the floor.

Rummaging through his lab coat and trousers, she found his security key and sped towards the door with the plastic card tight in hand. Just as she stepped out into the corridor, though, a warning siren began blaring and red lights flashed all around.

"Attention all personnel, this is a security alert code red. Please proceed to the nearest secure area. All doors will be automatically locked in thirty seconds. This is not a drill. Repeat, this is not a drill. Attention all personnel, this is a security alert…" the pre-recorded voice droned over the loudspeakers. River's heart plummeted as the message started to repeat. She did not have time to get to the records room. In less than thirty seconds the entire Academy was going to be locked down. She had to get out before she was trapped in this hell. Turning the opposite way she had intended to go, she flew down the corridor. Her thoughts raced ahead of her, trying to recall the way through the maze to where she knew the access shaft was waiting for her. The seconds ticked off. Here and there people scurried down the halls, ducking into the safety of one room or another before they were caught out in the open. Feeling like time itself was fleeing before her, River took a blind corner at full speed. With no space to stop or even slow down, she did not see the three people on the other side until it was too late. She slammed into them, the collision sending her and everyone else to the floor in a tangle of arms and legs. Dazed and reeling with pain, her mind screamed at her to get up, that she had to move, but the signals just could not seem to get to her legs properly. Coughing and retching from the impact, she managed to scramble to her hands and knees, but that was as far as she got. In front of her, one of the people she had collided with groaned and sat partially up. When she saw his face, recognition seized up her muscles and she could do nothing but stare at him. The man, blinking and rubbing his head, took about a half second longer to recognize her, and then his eyes shot wide with both astonishment and fear.

"You!" Representative Chu-yu croaked out. His gaze remained locked on her for an instant longer before he turned to the other two men who were on the ground next to him and began shouting. "Get her! Get her!" In full-on panic and with her time certainly almost out, River made a desperate move. She grabbed Chu-yu by the shirt and half-dragged, half-stumbled with him towards an open doorway. "Let go of me! Help!" Chu-yu hollered as he struggled with her. One of the other two men, who judging by their identical suits and sidearms were probably the representative's security detail, finally started coming to his senses at hearing the shouts. The agent drew his weapon and leveled it at River just as she shoved the thrashing politician into the open room. She threw herself in after him, but not before the agent's gun roared and a white hot streak of fire tore through her left thigh. She floundered through the doorway just as the next two shots ricocheted harmlessly off the closing security door. Collapsing to the floor in agony, she tried to rise but was met with a swift kick to her ribs that threw her gasping onto her back. "Serves you right, you little bitch!" Chu-yu snarled at her. He swung his foot again and planted another heavy-soled shoe into her side. Unable to catch her breath or even see through her tear-blurred eyes, she curled up into a ball on her side to protect herself. Chu-yu stepped over her and began shouting and banging on sealed door.

"Get me out of here!" he yelled.

"We're trying, sir. The system has everything locked down!" a muffled voice returned from the other side.

"Well do something about it!"

"Yes, sir! Are you all right?"

"I'm trapped in here with this chou san ba! How do you think I am, you bai mu moron!"

"Is she threatening you?" River felt Chu-yu glaring down at her.

"No. She's wounded, and I gave her a few kicks to keep her down."

"If you can, try to find something to restrain her with," the voice outside advised.

"I'm not touching her!" Chu-yu screamed back. "She's your problem. You get in here and deal with her!"

"Yes, sir!"

"This is preposterous!" cried Chu-yu as he carefully skirted around her. His hate-filled thoughts sliced into River's mind like hot little razors. "Cao ni zuzong shiba dai!" he snarled scornfully. "This is all your fault! Miranda, Serenity, everything! I don't care how much Dr. Qin says he needs you. No one is worth as much trouble as you've caused. After this, I'm going to see to it that your precious brain never has a coherent thought again!" When he came into her field of view, River saw him take something out of his suit jacket pocket. Fearful it was a gun at first, she quickly realized it was some sort of Cortex unit. Anguished and impotent, she listened to him swear profusely as he tried to get the device to work. He was standing less than a step beyond her grasp, but she could not get up. The bullet in her thigh had probably fractured her femur, so even if she had wanted to hurt him, she was helpless. She had failed. She had no evidence of the Academy's travesties, and no way of getting it out even if she did. It was over for her. Glancing up at the representative, the fire of her strength was drowned in hopelessness. She knew he deserved her retribution as much as anyone, but what would that serve now? So many had died already. Would one more death break the cycle? If he was gone, would the Academy suddenly vanish? Would the full truth about Miranda be made known? She knew the answer to all of those questions. It took more than one man to perpetrate the monstrous injustices that the Alliance had carried out, and it would take more than her to bring them to account for it. She had been naïve to think that she could stop them. Not that it mattered anymore. She would never be free from them, never. Broken and defeated, her tears fell to the floor, mixing with the blood oozing from her leg. Never had she wished so much more than now that she was back on Serenity. She wanted to see Simon and Kaylee again, and the captain, and Inara and Zoe, too. Even Jayne would be a welcome sight. If things had just happened differently… but that was never a possibility. No matter how events might have been altered, she would always have had to face what the Alliance had done to her, and it was dishonest of her to think otherwise. It was better this way. She only wished she had the chance to say goodbye to them properly. As her thoughts drifted to her friends, she held the memory of each of their faces in her mind like treasured gems, knowing the Academy would soon take even those away from her. But they were safe, well on their way to the Border now. That knowledge was the only solace she had, that they were finally beyond harm's reach.

"Please state your name for voice pattern matching," Chu-yu's Cortex spoke aloud.

"Soong Chu-yu," the representative snapped at the screen.

"Parliamentary override initiated. Connecting to secure network."

"Zui hou!" he uttered in exasperated relief. By the sound of it, River guessed that his privileges as a member of Parliament must have granted him to access a special connection to the Cortex that bypassed the security system's communications blockade. That knowledge would have been meaningless at this point, except that a last, stubborn tendril of defiance in her mind latched onto it, refusing to let go. Against all her despair, a spark of an idea flickered to life. If Chu-yu's position gave him access to the special network for Parliament, she thought, maybe he had access to other government networks as well. Maybe he could even get into the Academy's files. Given the locked down state of the building, that was unlikely at the moment, but there had to be other agencies that had knowledge of the Academy. Certainly the military did. It was also possible that the representative himself had some documentation in his personal files. If she could just get his Cortex from him… but how? With her leg howling in pain at every movement, it would be impossible for her to overpower him. The spark guttered, threatening to drench her in the gloom of hopelessness again.

You have to! the defiant part of her mind railed, refusing to let the faint glow die. You have to find the strength, for them. She remembered the boy, and all the other tormented minds she had encountered briefly in the cell block. If she did not keep going, what would happen to them? The Alliance had taken every last hope, every shred of human dignity from them and replaced it with torture and bitter memories. She could not allow that to go on. As long as she had breath in her body, she had to fight, for their sake. With the lives of her fellow prisoners feeding the flame of her determination anew, she gritted her teeth against the pain and set her sights on Chu-yu's Cortex. She sensed the representative was mostly ignoring her now, believing she was too injured to be a threat. His earlier furor was now directed at his predicament and all of the people he blamed for it, and she was appalled to hear the selfishness of his thoughts. There was not necessarily anything sinister or evil about them, just an utter disregard for everything but his own concerns. In truth, it frightened her more to realize just how easy and commonplace it was for him to be so callous. Was this the kind of mentality that bred politicians to approve of a place like the Academy? She could not fathom it. It was beyond her grasp. And so was he still. Moving extraordinarily slowly, both to minimize the pain and to avoid attracting his attention, River used her good leg to inch closer, dragging herself towards him a few centimeters at a time. When she was almost there, a distant rumble suddenly shook the building, followed by a brief flutter in the power. Chu-yu cast an irritated frown at the ceiling.

"What is it now?" he griped. Seizing the moment, River coiled every muscle in her body and released them with as much power as she could muster. From her prone position on the floor, she heaved herself at the representative's feet. Grabbing his left leg, she wrapped her arms around it and jerked it out from under him.

"Gah!" the man cried as he went down on his back, his Cortex clattering to one side. "Jianhuo!" he spat at her and tried to kick her in the face with his free foot. With a cry from the pain searing her leg, she rolled to one side to avoid it, at the same time squeezing his foot between her arms and yanking upward. The bones in his ankle popped and crackled, and he screamed. "Aaaaahhh!" She let go, leaving him to writhe while she pulled herself up. With supreme effort, she rose to one knee and wavered over him for a second. Then, focusing on all of her fear, pain, and anger, she brought her left fist down on his face. His head recoiled off the floor from the blow, diminishing his screams to stunned moans. Rearing back again, her knuckles met his chin a second time, and he was out cold. Her limbs were shaking with pain and adrenaline as she collapsed beside him, breath and saliva whistling between her clenched teeth. But she did not rest for long. Driven by urgency, she crawled over his prostrate form and reached for his Cortex unit. Groaning and wincing, she managed to contort herself into a sitting position, and then, with the unit in her lap, she arduously scooted backwards until she was leaning against the wall opposite the door.

Pausing to catch her breath again, another deep rumble vibrated the entire room. This one was louder and more forceful, causing the glassware and vials in the cabinet beside her to clatter against each other. River was not sure what was going on, but she had no room in her head to spare pondering it. Bringing up the main screen on the Cortex, she began the hunt for whatever evidence she could find to bring the Academy down. Not wasting time trying to access any other networks, she focused her search on the files stored within the device itself. Her shaky fingers scrolled through the menus and directories, her eyes hastily scanning each file for some clue to its contents. She almost brushed right past one that was titled with just a series of digits, 00008843, but some deep recognition that she could not quite place caused her to halt over it. After a moment of staring at the numerals, trying to figure out why they were familiar, she tapped the icon to open the file. Suddenly a photo of her face filled the small screen. The picture was old by several years, but it was instantly identifiable. It was the same picture the Alliance had used on her fugitive bulletin, the one taken in her first year at the Academy. As she swept through the rest of the file, she discovered that this was not just another copy of that notice. This was her official Academy record! It had test results, psychological evaluations, and medical charts, everything she had undergone since entering the Academy. Chu-yu must have downloaded it to his Cortex. And now she had it in her hands. It was not much, but it might be just enough.

Faint and urgent voices crept to her ears from outside and she shot an apprehensive glance at the door. There was no more time. This would have to do. Switching to the broadwave screen, she mentally crossed her fingers as the unit searched for a signal. Her heart leaped when it made the connection. She input the wave code she knew by heart now, but just before she initiated the call, the full weight what she was about to do held her back. The Alliance would not tolerate her attempting to expose them again. Once they found out what she had done, it was likely they would exact their punishment on her just as Chu-yu had threatened. And while she might become blissfully unaware of her suffering after the Academy finally lobotomized her brain to pieces, she would still be complicit in the torture and anguish of their victims. They would use her, a living cadaver to poke and prod while they teased out the secrets of her brain so they could destroy even more innocent lives to satisfy their perverted goals. Nauseated by that prospect, she understood that she could not let them take her again. She could not allow them to use her to harm others anymore, no matter what. She knew what that meant. Part of her cowered away at the notion, but another part of her actually welcomed the insight. From the moment she entered the Academy, her life had already been over. They had taken it from her that first day. Now she would take it back. She would not be a pawn in their game anymore. It was the only way for her to be free and the only way to stop them. She knew now, with a sort of preternatural certainty, that her path would end here. Glancing up at the cabinet full of vials, her eyes filled with tears, though not for herself. She swallowed them back bravely as she sent the wave and made her choice, the only one she had left to her.

Mal allowed a wary eye to graze across the blackness outside of the bridge. Their escape, orchestrated by River, had not taken them far. Serenity had only made it a few hours beyond Osiris' second moon, Tannhauser, before the power relay Kaylee had repaired back at Spider failed again. Fortunately they were safely out of range unless the Alliance purposely came looking for them. But on the not so fortunate side, they were not going to be making it to Salisbury, River's intended destination for them, anytime soon. In fact, they were not going anywhere soon. The busted relay coupled with the damage to the fuel cells from the EMP did not leave them with enough power to even limp to Santo, the nearest reasonably safe destination. He sorely hoped Kaylee could work some kind of fix to get them moving again, but they were going on their second day without any progress. Anxious and unable to do much to assist in the repairs, Mal had taken River's advice and put himself and Jayne to the task of scouring the ship for bugs. They had come up empty, and he reckoned it was a good sign that they were not being tracked. But all the same there were never any guarantees with the Alliance. Now, though, with nothing to keep him busy and far too many worries playing on his mind, his nerves were frayed to the point of breaking. He tried not to think about River, about how she looked when she last spoke to him. He tried not to think about what she had chosen to face, sending herself back to that hideous place all for their sakes. It made him sick to his stomach, maybe even to his soul if he had one, to imagine what they might be doing to her. But worst of all, he knew that he had failed to keep her safe from them. He tried to console himself by spending time with Inara, picking up the slack from Simon. While the doctor was making a valiant effort, it was evident that he was barely able to function. And as bad as Mal's distress was over River, he conjured her brother's had to be worse by a hundredfold. But nothing he could say would make it any easier to bear, so he let Simon be for now.

The rest of the crew were not taking losing River much better, though. Kaylee was suffering something terrible, almost as much as Simon. Although she had little attention to spare for her emotions with the repairs occupying her, in a rare moment when she had a break from working on Serenity, he found her and Simon seeking solace with each other. They sat and cried together, holding each other in silence. Even Jayne and Zoe were struggling to cope. After completing the sweep for bugs, Jayne had gotten himself so stupid drunk that Mal had to lock him in his bunk for several hours until he sobered up. Zoe just grew more withdrawn. She helped Kaylee in the engine room and took her turn on the watch, but Mal could see a veil over her eyes now. He realized that, whether they had wanted to or not, they had all dedicated nearly two years of their lives to helping River. Now they had to face the fact that in spite of all they had endured and sacrificed, it was not enough to save her from the Alliance.

Leaning to one side in the helm, his chin on his hand, Mal tried to head off the black regret threatening to overtake his thoughts again by working through the solutions to their current predicament. Once Kaylee got them fixed, he would have to make the best time possible to Santo where he could put in for more permanent repairs. Hopefully what was left over from the Gangster of Boats' advance would be enough to cover it. But if Kaylee could not get them on their way again, then he would have to go looking for assistance. River had warned him to stay off the Cortex, but he would not have much choice. Monty was the first person he thought of to turn to. However, he realized with dark and bitter irony, his old comrade was just about the only person he could turn to thanks to the Alliance's scorched earth policy leading up to Miranda. He was trying to consider how long he should wait before attempting to wave for help when the console unexpectedly lit up. Mal jerked upright as he saw the indicator flashing on the screen. It was an incoming wave, but it was on a secure encrypted channel with no identifying information, one that only someone high up in the Alliance political or military hierarchy would have access to. His stomach churning with freshly invigorated fear, Mal was about to reject the call and jump on Kaylee to get them moving double-time, but before he could do either of those things, the security protocol overrode the system and the wave connected automatically.

"Captain," River addressed him a split second later. Mal could only stare at the screen in slack-jawed shock and amazement. He could not believe what he was seeing. "Where's Simon?" she asked him.

"What the gorram hell…?"

"Captain, please. There's not much time," River urged, glancing fearfully away from her screen for an instant. "Where is Simon?" Mal fumbled for the com mic, his eyes never leaving the screen.

"Doc!" he hollered. "Get your ass up here! It's River!" Within seconds, a frenzied set of feet was rattling up the forward stairs and pounding down the foredeck. Several more sets sounded not too far behind.

"River!" Simon shouted, as he burst onto the bridge. He was so completely overjoyed that he almost elbowed the captain out of his seat in his rush to the console screen.

"River!" Kaylee's voice followed upon Simon's with a sob of relief. She dashed to his side. Jayne and Zoe both arriving on the bridge as well, their expressions mirroring Mal's in their astonishment.

"How did you… where are you…" Simon tried to question her, but she silenced him immediately.

§21. "Listen to me," she said. "I need you to do something very important. I was able access my file at the Academy. I'm uploading it to you now." Her hands moved off screen and another alert appeared on the console. Mal stared at it, then stared back at her. "Captain, accept the file transfer," she instructed. Mal did as he was told, his shock still not completely worn off yet. "Simon, that file should have everything you need to expose the Academy," she told her brother. "I can't stop them, but you can. You have to take it and show the Verse what they've done to us here. They can't be allowed to do this anymore."

"Wait, I… I don't understand. Where are you?" asked Simon, concerned and confused. River closed her eyes, swallowing hard.

"I'm still inside. That's why I need you to do this. I can't get out. I'm sorry, Simon. I tried." She offered a weak smile of apology, but Mal saw the immense depth of suffering in her eyes.

"River, just hold on. We'll get you out. We're… we're working on a plan," Simon looked desperately to Mal.

"Yeah. You just hang tight, albatross. We'll be there in no time," Mal agreed.

"No," she shook her head. "It's too late for me."

"Now don't you start talkin' like that," Mal admonished her, his stubbornness automatically pushing back against her despair. "I let you go last time, but I'll be damned if I don't bring you home again, no matter what it takes."

"You can't. They won't let me go once they find out what I've done, and they won't let you live if you come back. You have to go someplace safe. Then use that file. Do whatever you can to bring them down. You have to help the others, before it's too late for them. Promise me you will."

"But, River…"

"Promise me! Please," River's voice broke with her desperate plea, shocking her brother into silence.

"Yes, I promise," Simon said quietly after a long pause.

"Thank you," her response was hushed and her chin dropped to her chest almost in exhaustion, hiding her face in her hair. A shuddering breath escaped her. When she raised her eyes to the screen again, her expression was filled with both relief and terrible sadness. "I have to go now."

"No, wait…" Simon blurted, but she did not let him finish.

"Don't worry, Simon," she said. "I won't let them take me." With that, she raised an injector gun, pressed it to the inside of her forearm, and squeezed the trigger. She flinched just a bit as the vial emptied. Then she removed the spent one, loaded another vial, and injected that as well. They all watched, unable to move or speak. "It's okay," she assured them. "It won't hurt. I'll just go to sleep. And then I'll be free. I'll be free." She tried to smile, but the tears were rolling down her cheeks now. "Tell Kaylee I love her. And Zoe. And the Captain and Inara. And Jayne. They were all kind to me, made me feel like I belonged. Tell Dad and Mom, too. I'll miss them." She struggled to keep her voice steady. "I love you, Simon."

"River… no…." Simon whispered, beyond devastated. She reached out to touch the screen, as if reaching for his face.

"I love you. Goodbye." The wave went dark.

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