Presets

Chapter 20

River let the Cortex drop to her side as she ended the broadwave. It was done. She had gotten the information to Serenity. It was up to them now. They would see it through to the end. She knew it. Now all that was left for her was to wait. With a trembling hand, she wiped the tears from her eyes.

What will it be like? she could not stop herself from wondering. She knew well the myriad ways religions throughout human history had described what came after death, but for herself personally she held no faith in a belief beyond the life that she had known. For her, only nothingness came next. Although she could conceive of it intellectually, her consciousness could never truly grasp the actuality of non-existence. That was the ultimate paradox of being. A mind that did not exist could not know it did not exist. She took comfort in that in a way, knowing that unlike all of the other terrible things that had happened to her, she would have no memory of her death. And when her life ceased, so would all of the other memories, and the pain and suffering they had inflicted upon her. It would all go away, become nothing as well. But for all of the relief that her end promised, she could not ignore the ache tearing at her heart for what might have been. She would miss Simon. She would miss her mother and father. She would miss Kaylee, would miss seeing her and her brother's relationship potentially develop into a family, her future nieces and nephews never knowing their Aunt River. She would miss flying Serenity. She would miss Mal and Inara, always dancing around each other with their infuriating banter. She would miss running with the captain and Zoe and Jayne, getting into and out of scrapes as they dodged around the Verse looking for the next job. She would miss all of that, but that was the price she had to pay. Her life for theirs, and so many more. And though she clung to those future memories, even they were too much to bear now. She knew it was time for her to let them go.

At that moment, the room was suddenly swallowed in blackness. Only the glow of the Cortex screen illuminated the space around her for a few seconds before the red emergency lighting came up. Her eyes tried to adjust to the dimness, but everything remained out of focus. Her head was starting to feel thick and muzzy as well, and she realized what was happening. The drug was starting to take hold. An enveloping calm settled over her, enhanced by the dim quiet of the room. As the moments passed, she started to feel rather pleasant, if quite tired. She faintly heard more frantic shouts and footsteps echoing in the hall beyond the door and turned her lolling head towards the noise. She tried to wonder what was going on out there, but it seemed so distant and unimportant now. With her heart banging against her ribcage and the roar of her pulse nearly deafening in her ears, it was impossible for her to concentrate on the noises. Each breath felt like it was sapping more and more of her energy, as if an invisible stone was pressing between her breasts and getting larger with every exhalation. Soon she could barely keep herself upright anymore. The entire room wobbled and shifted unsteadily.

Should… lie… down, the thought oozed through her mind, oddly practical. She tried to lower herself to her side, but in her weakness she simply slumped over. She did not feel the impact of hitting the floor. She did not even feel the pain from the bullet in her thigh anymore. She managed to roll onto her back, but her temples throbbed from even that minor exertion. Her skin turned flushed and feverish, and she wished someone was there to press a cool cloth to her forehead. It was so hard to breathe, and she was so weary now. Her eyes closed briefly.

No! Some self-preserving instinct hurled her senses back to awareness. She struggled to rise, but her limbs had become disproportionately large and clumsy, like her body was a suit too large for her. For all her effort, she only managed to barely roll to one side. Slipping onto her back again, she fought to keep her eyelids open, but it was a losing battle. Her brother's face floated before her, gyrating into multiple images before congealing into a single one again. He was trying to say something to her, but she could not hear him. "Simon…" she whispered, her voice almost non-existent. "Sorry… I wanted… but…couldn't stay…" She might have been crying, but if so, she could no longer feel the tears. A fleeting blur of movement by the door caught the corner of her eye. With impossible effort, she rolled her head to the side to look, but her eyelids sagged shut again as she was unable to resist the weight pressing down on them any longer. The rolling blackness behind them rocked her like the motion of a ship, soothing and removing the last vestiges of her resistance. She let go, disconnecting, everything receding into the background. A noise echoed, carrying forever across the vast gulf of space between her and the outside world, but it made no difference what it was. She was numb now. She did not hurt anymore.


"She's here!" Matthias Harder shouted as he tore across the room to where River lay on the laboratory floor. In his haste he tripped and nearly fell over another figure lying motionless nearby, but he paid it little heed. His single-minded attention was on River. He had felt her feeble thoughts from the other side of the door and knew she was in trouble. But in the precious few seconds it had taken to get the lock open, she had slipped away from his senses. "Ai ya!" he breathed, falling to his knees by her side. "River, can you hear me?" he called aloud, feeling at her throat for a pulse. It was barely there. Her chest rose and fell sluggishly. He saw the blood crusted on her thigh and quickly examined the wound. It was not bleeding much. River? he tried to reach her mind, but the faint touch that had drawn him to her was gone now, and her unconscious swirled with dark images he was unable to make out.

"Oh, no." Anna joined her husband kneeling beside the prostrate girl. Is she…

She's still alive, Matthias reassured his wife as he pried River's eyes open to look at her pupils. They were just tiny pinpricks. He rubbed her sternum hard, calling her name again, but she still did not respond. The fallen injector gun and the two empty vials caught his eye and a dreadful chill passed through him. He felt along her arms and finally found the tiny holes that were the signature of an injection site. He snatched up one of the empty vials and read the label. Throwing it away, he started tearing through the opened cabinet nearby.

What is it? Anna's frightened thought came to him.

She's overdosed on painkillers, he shared a desperate look with his wife.

"Do you have her?" a man's voice called harshly from the doorway.

"Yes!" Matthias shouted back.

"Come on, then! We have to go. Now!" Matthias thought he heard footfalls ringing out along the corridor, compounding the urgency he felt emanating from their escort.

"Here, take this," he handed the large satchel he was wearing to his wife. Then he slipped his hands beneath River's shoulders and legs and hefted her up. He was not a powerful man, but even so, River's lightness surprised him. Dark thoughts enveloped his mind, old sayings about a body being lighter after the soul departed. He pushed them aside.

Do you need help? Anna asked.

No, I've got her. Go! Anna flung the satchel across her body and ran out of the room ahead of him. The two of them moved quickly out into the hall while their partner fell into a rear guard position. With River bouncing in his arms, Matthias led them through the Academy's darkened subterranean passageways without hesitation. Even after all these years, he had not forgotten this maze. He knew they were not far from the emergency stairs. If he could just get them there, they could make it to the surface with little trouble, as long as their diversion held out. Turning the corner at the next intersection, though, his plans of a clandestine escape were dashed by sight of the plain black suits and ties of at least half a dozen of the Academy's security guards at the other end of the corridor. Unable to stop his momentum with the extra weight in his arms, he skidded and slipped, falling hard on his back with River on top of him.

"Matthias!" Anna cried. The guards spied them and shouted as well, rushing down the hall and closing in on him. Matthias struggled to get up, but he was winded and dazed from the impact and could not seem to untangle himself from River. Several guards leveled their weapons at him, but the man escorting them was there first, charging into the open and peeling off several rounds with his sidearm. Two guards fell and the others scurried for cover.

"Get up! Hurry!" the man ordered. Anna scurried over, helping Matthias drag River behind the corner while bullets ricocheted around them. The man fired several more times and then ducked back to safety as well. Slapping a fresh clip into his pistol, his eyes went to Anna's bag.

"Give me one." Anna reached into the satchel and withdrew a clanking glass bottle filled with liquid and stuffed with a rag. The man produced a lighter and ignited the piece of cloth. "Ready?" he asked. Anna nodded, closing her eyes and setting her shoulders. The man leaned around the corner and flung the flaming bottle toward the guards. They raised their weapons, but before a one of them could fire, the man shattered the bottle in mid-air with one shot. The vessel exploded into a rain of fire and glass. At the same moment, Anna stepped around the corner and released the charge of energy she had been building. A gust of wind tore down the corridor and drove the burning droplets and piercing shards right into the faces of the remaining guards. They screamed and recoiled as the fire shower swept over them. Then, one by one, the man took each of them down with deadly precision, leaving the hall littered with crackling corpses. "Go!" he jerked his head at Matthias. With River in his arms once more, Matthias took off with the other two trailing close behind.

Hurrying past the scorched bodies, he led them through the next three intersections and made one final turn, coming to a halt in front of the emergency stairwell door. The man yanked it open and went through first, but he was almost instantly showered with a hail of automatic fire from above. He managed a few haphazard shots in retaliation before retreating.

"It appears they've guessed at our strategy," he assessed with understated calm. "Is there another way?" he asked Matthias.

"Not without potentially running into more guards," Matthias shook his head. Footsteps and sharp voices clattered in the stairwell, and Matthias turned his head towards them in growing fear.

"Watch out!" The man yelled and abruptly threw him to one side as a guard appeared around the corner behind them. A round hit the wall just to Matthias' right, sending splinters of metal into his cheeks. The man rolled to his knees and dropped the guard with a single, well-placed shot, but there were more shoes pounding down the hallway towards them.

"Give me the bag, quickly!" the man urged Anna. She swung it over to him. Grabbing the remaining bottles, he proceeded to smash them all around the corridor. Then he opened his lighter, flicked it to life, and tossed it to the floor. The entire hallway was instantly engulfed in flames. Shielding his face from the heat, he rushed back to stairwell door. After checking his weapon's magazine, he snapped the clip back into place and drew the sword from the scabbard on his back.

"When they come, I'll take as many as I can. You just try to get through," he instructed Anna and Matthias, his face set in calm resoluteness. "We shall make our stand here." He pressed himself against the wall just inside doorway, a weapon in each hand. Matthias did the same on the opposite side, trying to keep Anna behind him for what little shelter his larger frame could offer. His throat dried up and closed off as the shoes clattering on the stairs above them neared. He could tell, despite their compatriot's unflappable demeanor, that situation was dire, and the cold, dreadful reality that they might not survive much longer threatened to break him. His arms and legs began to tremble, even as he fought to salvage whatever courage he had left.

"Wait!" Anna suddenly burst out, grabbing his arm. "I have an idea." She turned her face up to Matthias and her desperate thoughts rushed into his head. His eyes widened when he comprehended what she was thinking. It was an outrageous suggestion, beyond anything she had ever attempted before, and he had no way of knowing if she could do it. But what other option did they have?

Are you sure? he passed the question back into her mind.

Yes, Anna's responding thought was far from certain, but firm nonetheless. Clinging to the barest hint of hope, he gave her the equivalent of a mental hug. The thought she sent back was more pure emotion than words, her eyes glittering intensely as they met his. Then she tore her gaze from him and took a step away from the wall. She shut her eyes and lowered her head, her arms stiffening at her sides and her fists clenched.

"What are you doing?" the man demanded, unaware of the plot that had been hatched between the two of them.

"Let her concentrate!" Matthias ordered him into silence. The man flexed his fingers on his sword and gave an apprehensive glance at the staircase above which rang with quickly approaching feet, but he held his tongue. Meanwhile, Matthias could already sense the energy gathering around his wife. It surrounded her, building like a charged ball of electricity over her body. The air quivered with the tension of it, prickling at his nerves and causing his hair to stand on end. It continued to increase, getting stronger and stronger, until he started to grow almost as frightened of it as he was of the guards bearing down on them. She had never gathered this much power before. However, he dared not disrupt her concentration with his worried thoughts. He had to trust she knew how much she could handle. Their lives were in her hands.

"Brace yourself!" Matthias shouted when he sensed Anna was reaching her limit. Then, raising her chin, her viridian eyes wide and unseeing, Anna let out a yell, using the physical sound to propel the energy she had gathered. It rushed out of her, and the torrent of wind that followed struck Matthias like hurricane. The raw power of it was indescribable. The roar drowned out everything, even Anna's shout. It shrieked past his ears and sucked the breath right out of his lungs as it howled up the stairwell. The vortex was so strong that it started to pull in the flames from the corridor, and soon a pillar of fire was snaking through the door and spiraling upward several flights. Dust peppered Matthias' face and he crouched down against the wall, trying to shelter River's form with his body. Up above, the force of the rushing air plowed into the unfortunate security guards and lifted them off their feet, bouncing them off the walls and out into the open space of the shaft. Their voices cried out in fright and dismay, but they were swallowed in the furor of the whirlwind. It only lasted for a few seconds, and then just as quickly it was gone. In its place, horrifically terrified shrieks filled the air. Those who had been caught up in the raging wind plummeted down. Their shouts were truncated into grunts and moans as they smashed into bannisters and stairs. Two screaming bodies slammed into the floor not far from Anna's feet, their cries silenced unnaturally by the impact. Matthias could only stare at them as blood very slowly oozed out from beneath their still forms. Much later he would find he was always able to recall that sickening sound of flesh and bone striking steel and concrete. But with the stairwell now eerily quiet, he rose carefully from his crouch. The man also peeled himself from the opposite wall, staring at Anna with awe and perhaps the barest hint of fear, too. Eyes glazed and breathing heavily, Anna did not seem to notice the carnage around her. She wobbled and staggered, about to collapse, but the man's feline reflexes caught her beneath her arms.

Are you… Matthias sent to her.

I'm fine, her mental voice sounded slurred, but she did not let him finish his thought. Go, she urged. Obeying, Matthias scooped up River again and took off up the stairs, the man helping Anna along behind him.

The landing pad in front of the main Academy building was not far from the outlet for the emergency stairway, but they slowed as they approached it, keeping low along the grass. The façade of the structure was dark without power, and wisps of smoke were drifting out of the doors. Two figures suddenly straggled out, coughing and wheezing loud enough to be heard even from several dozen meters away. The man tensed and raised his pistol's aim, but the figures were not wearing the suits of the Academy's security contingent and he let them stumble away. Nearly bursting with urgency, Matthias had to force himself to wait until the man signaled them forward, and then the three of them made a dash for their ship sitting on the pad. Once inside, Matthias dropped to his knees and laid River on the floor of the small cargo hold. He bent over her, assessing her vitals once again.

"Is she still alive?" the man asked, kneeling beside him.

"Yes, but I don't know for how much longer. She injected herself with twenty mils of Rosanquinol." The man's widening expression told Matthias he knew what that meant.

"Will anything in a standard medkit help?" he asked.

"No," Matthias turned to him with a grim look. "We need to get her to a hospital now."

"There's nowhere on this planet we can take her that the Alliance won't be alerted to. We'll have to head for one of the moons."

"I don't think she has that much time."

"I'll get us there as fast as possible. Do what you can for her, doctor," the man advised and then broke for the cockpit. Within seconds, the ship was powering up. Its engines roared to life and thrust them off the pad and into the atmosphere.

Anna knelt down next to River and gazed worriedly into the girl's wan face.

Can you help her? she asked her husband without looking at him, communicating at the speed of thought.

She needs something to counteract the drug, but without that… Matthias' mental response trailed off and Anna's cheeks paled. He shared her expression. After all of this, he could not believe that there was nothing he could do. But unless she received an antidote in the next few minutes, he knew she would most certainly die. If she had any awareness remaining, he might have been able to keep her fighting, and then she might have a chance, however slim. But her conscious mind had already succumbed, and it was impossible to reach her. Unless… He jerked up. There was one last thing he could try. His eyes lingered on her face, slack and ashen, while he furiously debated the risk.

What is it? Anna was looking at him, picking up on his thoughts.

I'm going to try something. There was a hypothesis that I was working on at the Academy before they took away all of my research. It involved the possibility that a reader's brain could connect with another in a very physical way, beyond just the sharing of thoughts and feelings as we usually do. I never finished experimenting with the techniques to attempt it, so I don't know if it will even work, but there's a chance.

What do you have to do? she asked. Matthias screwed up his face, searching for the words to describe it to his wife.

Since she's unconscious, I'll only be able to reach her on the most primal level. Once we're connected, though, from there I might be able jump-start her conscious mind and keep her from falling into a coma. But... he hesitated

What? Anna searched his expression, apprehensive.

It's dangerous, he concluded with a grave look. She's so weak that it might kill her. And if she dies, she might take me with her.

Matthias… Anna bit her lip, torn between her concern for him and her desire to help River.

I have to try, Matthias put a hand on her shoulder. She lowered her head, but nodded in agreement. I'll need you to watch over me, he instructed her. I will be so focused that I won't be aware of anything. If something goes wrong call out to me. Shake me hard. Do something to try to wake me out of it. Okay? Anna nodded again, putting on a brave face. All right. Matthias adjusted his position and took a deep, nervous breath. He glanced at his wife by his side one last time. She tenderly brushed a stray curl of hair from his forehead. He clasped his hand around her fingers, flooding her thoughts with absolute affection and trust. Then he settled himself into a relaxed posture and closed his eyes.

Dredging up memories of old skills he had buried long ago, Matthias worked to center himself like a monk preparing to meditate. Carefully dismantling the protective barriers he had constructed through years of practice, he slowly opened his ability to its fullest extent. Unshielded, his mind swam with the sudden and overwhelming surge of sensations. Anna's presence swelled in him first, filling his head with the fiery light of a burning star. Her love and her fear for him coursed through his thoughts like the blood in his veins. Beyond that, the center of her unique power thrummed like a second heartbeat, something so awesome and strange that even his skilled senses could never adequately define the experience of it. He allowed himself to bask the strength of her being for a moment, bolstering his psyche for what he knew was a harrowing and quite likely impossible feat he was about to undertake. Then he thrust the sensations towards the back of his awareness and reached out to River. Following his instincts more than his scientific training, he leaned over her body and placed his hands on her chest. Her faint, ragged pulse throbbed tenuously against his fingertips. Focusing on that to the exclusion of all else, he sank his mind into its faltering beat. He welcomed it, opening himself to it, letting it wash over him and through him as if it was his own. Soon his body began to mimic the pattern as he let his mind succumb to what remained of hers. An ache grew in his chest as his lungs labored, coerced into the cadence of her shallow breathing, and his heart shuddered with painful, discordant ripples as it instinctually fought against the alien rhythm being imposed upon it. Matthias shut away those sensations, attuning himself to nothing but the straggling tempo of her fading life. Gradually the rest of his body began to lose feeling. Soon the only thing he was aware of was a vague sense of falling. It was more like sinking, really, that slow but steady plunge down into an endless ocean. All around him was black and silent.

"River…"


"…" The sound was inconsequential at first. It was just a noise, a meaningless, tiny disturbance in the immeasurable peace of the darkness. The next time it came, though, it brought with it a strain of something familiar. Although it tugged at her, it was still indistinct and required too much effort to focus on. The blackness soon swallowed it away. "…iver…!" The third time it jarred her with its insistence. The emptiness writhed with flickers of color. She tried to ignore it, to submerge herself in the calm of the nothing again, but it continued to press on her with invisible force, grasping for her. "River!" the word came through clearly at last, cracking like a whip. It ignited everything into livid reds, throbbing and terrible. It pulsed around her slowly in deep swells, glowing with intensity before shrinking back. An ache, so pervasive and complete that she could not tell whether it came from inside or out, inundated her thoughts.

"No…" she felt rather than heard her voice croak. She sensed something… someone… reaching out for her. She tried to shrink into the shadows to escape the pain and the noise, but it s invisible grasp jerked her back, as if she was chained to it, and the beneficent darkness was no longer there to protect her.

"River, can you hear me?" the voice pierced through her aching senses.

"No!" she flung a desperate cry against the invasive presence that was dragging her from her peaceful oblivion, but she could not resist it. The formless crimson and ebony writhed into shapes. A landscape materialized around her, recognizable and at the same time foreign. Tall stems of grass and flowers took shape, but she could not actually see them, only their shadows. They were bent and bowed in the gloom, drooping as if under immense weight. Without warning, thunder detonated overhead, and with its reverberating peals came the torrent. Rain and hail pelted down on her, stinging her skin and soaking her to the bone several times over in a matter of seconds. Standing there in what was left of her garden, shaking in the deluge, she was distraught beyond all reason.

"River, please answer me!" the voice called out for her again. She recognized it now, and a surge of defiance billowed up beneath the pain, enflaming her rage.

"No! Go away!" she screamed.

"River!" the response was full of desperate relief despite her fury. Over the din of the storm, she heard something charging through the foliage. She wanted to run, tried to, but she was held fast, unable to do anything. Finally a figure appeared before her amidst the sagging and neglected growth. He was just a shadow as well, but she knew his mind and was filled with bitterness.

"Why are you here?" she demanded, furious yet impotent.

"I came to bring you back," Dr. Harder said.

"Why?"

"Because you're free now. We rescued you from the Academy. We can bring you back to your friends." A long silence held out between them before she answered.

"No," her voice buckled from anger into a sorrow filled with countless hours of tears. "I can't ever be free from it."

"Yes, you can," he insisted, and the hope emanating from him, rather than reassuring, felt more like a slap in the face. Even he did not understand.

"They took me away. Made me do things. Stained me. I can never escape."

"No, that doesn't have to be your fate. You can break away from it. Just don't give up," Dr. Harder urged.

"No, I can't. I tried, but it followed me. It's always there, overshadowing everything. And… and it hurts." The last phrase was filled with such palpable agony that she could seem him stagger beneath its intensity.

"I know," he said when he could find the mind to speak against her pain. His words were softer, both sad and compassionate. She felt his own regret and suffering rise to the surface in sympathy. "But you can learn to live with it, like I did. Please come back and we can help you to let it go."

"No. It will always be there," she refused, knowing that what was possible for him was impossible for her. She had already tried.

"Maybe. But it's not who you are."

"How do you know?" she asked him with cry of despair. "How do you know that it isn't what I am?"

"Because you still care," he retorted, fighting the despair of her words with his conviction. "You care for your friends, and they care for you, no matter what has happened. They can help you. But you have to hold on. Stay with me, and we can help you overcome this."

"You think you can fix it?" her anger unexpectedly resurged in force, beating at him. He winced visibly, but she did not relent. "Come inside. See what's it's like behind these walls," she invited with scathing acrimony. Reaching out to him, she seized his awareness in her mental grasp. He struggled against her, surprised by her near-assault, but he could not escape from her clutches. The red backdrop of the landscape suddenly exploded into a bloody maelstrom, and it swallowed them both into its violent vortex, subsuming their minds into one. She felt his thoughts battered by confusion and fear as they were tossed by the churning, rubicund storm, but she did not care. He had to see. When the tempest flung them out, they were in the very vivid, very harsh and sterile lighting of an exam room. Strapped to a chair in the middle of the room was herself. Shivering in her restraints, her eyes darted about with a fright that was so visceral that not even she had the words to describe it. Meanwhile, dozens of doctors in Academy-standard lab coats watched her, making notes and talking among themselves as if she did not exist. Needles and IVs protruded from her arms and legs. A scalpel attached to a disembodied hand slashed across her scalp and blood ran down her face. She shrieked and screamed and tugged at her restraints, maddened by pain and fear, but the doctors only made more notes with cold curiosity. She felt Dr. Harder's disgust welling up at the sight, but trapped within her mind, he could not look away. Then, with a stomach-churning lurch, that scene was savagely swept aside and they were back into the storm.

When the whirling stopped again, they were on Serenity this time, watching her sitting with the crew at the dining table. She was trying to listen, trying to interact, but there were too many voices. Their noise was so loud that it was hard for her to understand any of them. They muffled everything from outside, like cotton balls were in her ears. She tried to tell them what was wrong, but her words came out all jumbled, endlessly distorted by the dissonance in her head. Another brief, sickening swirl through the storm followed, and then they were in her bunk, observing her painting flowers on the walls. She drew with careful strokes at first, but as she moved around the room, the colors of the paint started to fade away. The walls grew dark with black shadows creeping across them, swallowing the bright designs. She did not look at the blackness as it started to envelop the room, but her fear was tangible, and her strokes became frantic as she tried in vain keep the last of the flowers from disappearing into the dark. Finally, she threw down her brush and darted for a jug sitting on the floor in the last undarkened corner of the room. She swept it up and took a massive swig, pressed against the wall while her terror-rimmed eyes watched the blackness loom closer. It halted, but even as it did, she seemed to be growing smaller and smaller until she was microscopic and insignificant, surrounded by an immensity of black fear.

Out of that dread darkness, the image of Eileen Kriegel emerged. She was well-dressed, bound, and gagged as she had been in the moments before her death. With muffled cries and the salty smell of tears on her cheeks, the pleading hopelessness in her eyes tore at them without mercy. River sensed Dr. Harder did not recognize her, but his mind was still trying to recoil, scored by the woman's abject fear. Then her face exploded into fragments, and an unbearable pain ripped apart their minds, red-hot needles searing Dr. Harder's perception as well as her own. When the needles receded, the shards of the woman's face reassembled into the appearance of fat, slovenly Miles Sheenaman. His face, too, shattered, and after another explosion of pain, the image altered again, with third set terrified of eyes boring into theirs. One after another, River confronted the doctor with the horrified visages and final moments of at least a dozen people that she knew she had killed, all staring back at them with that indelible fear.

The last face to coalesce was that of the captain. And within Mal's eyes, just as within all of the others, there was that same unrelenting fear. But instead of exploding into another cacophony of pain, his face simply dissolved into Simon's, and from there into Kaylee's. The procession continued on through the rest of the crew, until Dr. Harder was astonished to be staring at his own face, paralyzed into a gaping expression of horror.

"This is what I am," River's voice reached him through his astonishment. "I became what they wanted me to become, because I had to. But I don't want to be that anymore. I can't." The vision of his face finally melted away, and with a last wrenching swirl, the storm deposited them back onto the landscape. Only now, everything was clear and distinct. The gloom of the rain still remained, but she could see all of the colors of the flowers in her garden, fading and wilting now, overgrown with weeds. Dr. Harder, too, looked as she had known him, though his ringlets of hair were dripping and plastered to his skull. Behind his rain-spattered glasses, his eyes were blank with shock. He wavered before her, paralyzed. He could not speak nor find his voice to make any sound at all. Staggered by the viciousness of her mental kaleidoscope, she could feel him reeling from the horrific sights, barely able to comprehend them. Though he had scanned her memories before, he had not been able to see what had truly been done to her. The butchering of her psyche, the casual way in which her trust had been abused and her humanity ignored to the point that all of the beauty and promise of her mind had been warped into that, it was so hideous that it made him physically ill.

"Now you understand," she said to him. Her voice broke him from his daze, and he turned his eyes upon her with a look of such helpless anguish that she almost pitied him. He wanted to apologize. He wanted to fall to his knees and beg her for forgiveness on behalf of the Verse that had hurt her so deeply. But that would not change anything. Nothing he could do would, and he knew that now. There was only one thing he could offer her.

"Let me go," she begged. "Please. I don't want this anymore," her voice fell to a tortured whisper. "I can't. I can't…" He tore his anguished stare away, unable to look at her.

"I'm so sorry," the words broke from his lips, barely audible.

"I know. But it's too late for me. Help the others. Help Serenity. Don't let them do what they've done to me." His silence drew out for an age.

"I will," he finally murmured, sadness almost swallowing his words. But beyond his sorrow she felt the strength of his promise and knew that he would keep it.

"Thank you," she replied, unexpectedly relieved. "Tell them. Don't let them feel sorry for me. This was the only way." He nodded, raising his head to meet her gaze one last time. He shuddered, as if he was about to break down, but then he fixed his shoulders, resolute. With tearful eyes, he bowed in deference, his voice lost again. "Goodbye," she bade him, and with her farewell the pervasive resistance that had been holding her melted away. His form began to fade into shadow once more, gradually merging with the landscape. The rain blurred his outline further and further until it vanished altogether. He was gone. Alone now, she stood in the rain and waited for the enveloping blackness to return her to its bosom.

She had not waited long when she noticed that the rain was beginning to let up. Turning her head towards the sky, the diminishing droplets still splashed against her cheeks, but she saw the clouds turning ragged and patchy. Soon the rain had ceased entirely and a warm, pleasant breeze began to whisper around her, easing the chill of her wet skin. Puzzled by the change, she was even more surprised when she brought her gaze back down and discovered that she was no longer in her garden.. A broad, rolling plain spread out in front of her instead, and in contrast to the drenched and wilted vegetation, the meadow was replete with wild grasses and prairie flowers in full bloom, inviting her to explore it. Frowning slightly, took a few hesitant steps into the field. The scents of the blossoms and the prickle and tickle of grass against her bare feet and legs were sensations she had long since forgotten. She stopped for a moment just to relish them. Up above, the clouds finally lost their hold on the sun and a burst of sunlight tore through. She watched as the beam expanded towards her, spreading its glorious warmth across the prairie. It crept over her feet first, kissing her toes, then it slid up the length of her body like the most gentle of caresses until it reached the top of her scalp. Eyes closed, she raised her chin to the sky, basking in its glow, a serene smile gracing her lips. Wherever she was now, it was as close to paradise as she could have imagined.

Ensconced in her sunbeam, she did not notice the approach of another until her senses alerted her to its presence. For a hair of a second, she was alarmed, but then the she felt the radiance of a familiar mind as it touched hers.

"Is that you, preacher-man?" she lilted without opening her eyes.

"Yes, child." She sensed the dark face with the hoary beard beaming at her in kindly welcome. "I'm glad to see you."

"I'm glad to see you, too," she answered truthfully, although more than slightly perplexed by his appearance. "What are you doing here?"

"I believe you know why," Book's response was gentle but direct. Indeed, she did, although it was not quite what she had expected. Lowering her head slowly, she opened her eyes onto the Shepherd. His smile was warm yet bittersweet, and she let her chin fall to her chest, unable to hold on to her carefree enjoyment of the sun-drenched field any longer.

"I'm dying," she stated quietly, feeling the tug of fear and uncertainty as she did so.

"Yes," confirmed Book.

Then this is all an illusion. A hallucination generated by random firing of neurons in the hippocampus as a result of acute hypoxia, she surmised, glancing around at the landscape.

"Perhaps. But what if it isn't?" Secrets crept into the corners of Book's wizened eyes as his smile broadened. She could only blink and stare at him, utterly confounded. Aside from casting doubt on her assumption, he had undoubtedly just read her thoughts. But how was that possible? "You'll find many things that you thought not are possible here," he answered her unspoken question again, throwing her for another loop.

"Where are we, then?" she eventually managed to ask, bewildered beyond all measure.

"That depends on your perspective," Book's smile turned mildly pensive. "Might be you're right, and this is just a mirage created by the last vestiges of your dying mind. But might be it's something else altogether."

"Like what?" she asked.

"Like a transition. A staging area, if you will. Preparation for what is to come."

"But there is no heaven. It's not real. It can't be…"

Book's lips formed into that secret grin again, and she was struck silent in bafflement. She took another hard look around, but her senses told her nothing more about the meadow beyond its fragrant blossoms and vibrant colors.

"So… what is this?" she ventured with some trepidation after a space of silence, not sure what to expect next in response.

"That," began Book, "is something you must discover for yourself." He smiled encouragingly, but it did naught to dissolve her confusion.

"But why am I here?" she beseeched him with a child's plaintiveness. Book gaped at her with a sudden look of astonishment that was momentarily terrifying before it dissolved into depths of compassion.

"Oh, my dear. This is where you belong. And surely you deserve it more as much as anyone in the Verse."

"What?" she continued staring at him with a disbelieving frown, not knowing what to make of his statement.

"You made the choice, the hardest choice anyone ever has to make. The choice very few have ever had the strength to make. But with it, you took back everything they've taken from you. River," Book pronounced her name deliberately, with quiet jubilation. "You're free now."

"But… but I don't understand," she stammered. "I did terrible things."

"Yes. And you suffered terribly for them. But you've saved so many. So many will now be free to live their lives because of the sacrifices you made."

"So… what's going to happen to me?"

"Would you like to find out?" Book's grin once again beckoned with something untold. Her insatiable curiosity seized on it and overwhelmed her doubts momentarily, but then the fear returned. One thing in particular nagged at her, holding her back. She bit down on her lip, apprehensive.

"Will it hurt?" she ultimately ventured, her voice meek.

"Oh, no!" he chuckled at her. "There won't be any more pain. Far from it."

"There won't?" she hardly dared to believe what he was saying.

"Yes, child," Book's smile expanded like the radiance of the sun around her. "No one will be able to hurt you ever again." As his pronouncement settled on her, something deep inside her, something unbearable that she had been carrying for so long that she had forgotten it was there, shattered. The tremendous weight on her heart instantly fell away. When she realized it was gone, tears of joy and relief fell unbidden from her eyes.

Free…

It had been so long since she had known that feeling that he could not fathom it would be so wonderful. She closed her eyes, raising her head to the blue sky again. The sunlight blazed through her and her face broke into a pure, unrestrained smile, and a ripple of bright laughter pealed from her lips. It was magnificent.

The breeze had died now, just the palest breath stirring a stray hair against her cheek. Spreading her arms to embrace the heavens, she let herself fall back onto the grass. She did not even feel herself hit the ground the thick tufts cushioned her so well. Opening her eyes, she saw the sky above had turned a deep, deep azure, nearly black. Dusk had fallen in an instant, although the sun still seemed to be strangely shining from somewhere. Despite that, stars appeared in the bosom of the firmament, unfamiliar and brighter than any she knew.

"The stars are so close," she said in renewed wonder, reaching out as if to touch them.

"Yes, they are." Book responded. She could not see him anymore, but she felt that he was still near.

Free…

She sensed another familiar presence approaching, and her mouth cracked into a silly little grin upon its arrival.

"Hi, Wash."

"Hiya, kiddo." She was silent a long time after that, her grin gradually fading.

"Zoe misses you," she finally told him.

"I know. I miss her, too. But she'll be okay." Concern suddenly filled her as his words brought back thoughts of her friends. Would they be okay? Who would look after them now?

"You've done your part to take care of them," Book's voice soothed her from somewhere. "They'll be looked after from here on." Without a second guess, she knew she could trust his words, and his assurance swept all of her worries aside. She smiled, closing her eyes again.

Free…

She basked in the glittering starlight, the last vestiges of her fear being burned away.

"If this is a dream, please don't wake me."

"It's not a dream," came Book's reply.

"Shepherd?"

"Yes?"

"Will I be allowed to dance?"

"You can dance to your heart's content." Her smile broadened. She could not feel the grass beneath her anymore. She felt weightless, like she was floating. The stars were nearer and clearer, their light pouring into her, seemingly drawing her up to join them in their infinite ballet. She thought she could hear music, the strains of the opening to her favorite dance piece. She raised her arms and took her position, waiting for the song to begin…

Free.

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