Hours later, River found herself still in the co-pilot's seat monitoring Serenity's position. The pain in her head was the most severe that it had been, and coping with it had her mind and body sagging with fatigue. However, she had been unable to leave the bridge since their escape from the Lancer. The captain's dangerous scheme to burn without nav guidance had succeeded in keeping the Alliance off their trail so far, but that meant she had to maintain a constant watch on their passage. Although she was confident that her course was as accurate as any the nav computer could calculate, there were more risks of flying through uncharted space than just getting lost. Others had occasionally come and gone from the bridge, including Zoe, Simon (to fuss over her, of course), and Jayne, but Mal had stayed at the helm the entire time, keeping mostly silent, which did not bother her given her pounding head.
"How long has it been?" the captain finally broke his taciturn spell, slowly swiveling his chair toward her.
"Four hours, thirty-seven minutes, and thirty seconds," River relayed to him with a glance at the clock on her display.
"You think it's been long enough?"
"We're four million, six-hundred and one thousand, eight-hundred ninety-eight and a half kilometers from the last position of the Lancer."
"So… yes or no?" River gave him an exasperated stare. "Right. Long enough. Got it," Mal got the hint. "Start slowin' us down. We gotta figure out our next move." River complied and entered the commands on her keyboard while Mal called back to Kaylee in the engine room. A long, full silence followed between them, although River could feel the captain eyeing her. "You need a break?" he eventually asked.
"I can manage," she replied, not wanting to admit that she was flagging, or not wanting to admit it to the captain at least.
"So can I," Mal said back. "Go on, get a bite to eat or somethin'. I want you in top condition seein' as you still gotta chart us another way outta here." Quietly grateful for his concern, River dutifully slipped from her chair and plodded down the stairs towards the dining area. Her stomach grumbled loudly along the way, although the pain in her head made her feel nauseous at the thought of food. Still, she knew the captain was right. She had to eat to keep her mind sharp, so she made her way into the galley and grabbed a protein bar. Standing by the counter, she unwrapped it and forced herself to nibble apathetically on a corner.
"I'm sure Mal will be upset when he finds out I brought you up here, but he did entrust me to watch over you," she heard Inara's voice carrying up from the forward stairs just outside the bulkhead.
"Please, we don't want to cause trouble for you," a female voice that she did not recognize responded.
"It's hardly that," Inara assured the speaker. "You paid your fare, and whether he likes it or not, that means the captain has to provide for your basic needs. He can't starve you just because you stowed away initially." The Companion emerged from around the corner and stepped down into the dining area, followed by two people who River presumed were the stowaways she had heard about. Inara nodded and smiled at her as she led the strangers in, and River passed her gaze over them. When they spotted her, the man and woman halted abruptly together. They stared back at her with looks of surprise. At the same moment, River felt some sort of warning ringing through her mind. Something about them was wrong, but before she could even consider what it was, disorientation swept over her, along with a flood of disjointed images and feelings that she could barely identify, let alone recognize. She staggered and reached for the counter with one hand to steady herself, the other clutching at her head. She was only dimly aware of Inara concernedly asking her what was wrong. Forcing herself to look at the stowaways again, she locked eyes with the man, and suddenly a wave of images she did recognize exploded through her mind, along with the attendant terror. Needles and injections and exam rooms. Men and women in smocks and masks with disfigured faces poking and prodding her. And the pain, sometimes excruciating, sometimes just a distant, numbing throb, but always there. Paralyzed by the onslaught, she could not tear her eyes from the man's face. Behind it all, a voice whispered to her. It was indistinct, more of an impression than actual words. But there was something familiar about the pattern.
A… thigh… ass? Math… I…. Ma… thi… as… Matthias! No… it can't be! She took a step back, her eyes dilated with panic as her nightmares came alive in her waking mind. Shaking like a leaf, her jaw clenched so hard that she bit her cheek. Blood oozed forth, salty and metallic, but she barely tasted it. Reaching behind her, she felt for the knife that she knew was in the container next to the cubbies. She was not even aware of the colors slipping away.
One elbow on the console, Mal reviewed his ship's status readouts, specifically the fuel consumption rates, and scowled. As per usual, they were out of one frying pan and right into the next one. Burning hard with only River's skills to guide them had been a last-ditch effort that had worked against all odds, but that little trick cost them a significant amount of fuel. They would need even more just to get back into charted space now, let alone reach an actual destination. Skimming the distances to the closest worlds on the nav chart, he did not find the situation much to his liking at all. It seemed that even amongst his severely limited options of planets within reach of their remaining fuel supply, they were still going to find themselves in that no man's land just outside the limits of a shuttle. He could only hope that River would find some way to squeeze every millimeter of efficiency out of whatever route they took and stretch their reserves to make it within shuttle range.
"River!" Inara's uncharacteristically frantic shout came from down the hall somewhere, shattering Mal's concentration. With a jerk of his head and only a moment's hesitance, he scrambled from the helm and hurried for the bulkhead.
"Inara? What's goin' on?" he demanded from the top of the bridge stairs, his adrenal glands, already primed from the day's earlier excitement, shifting into full gear again. The Companion rushed into the foredeck from the dining area.
"Mal! River's trying to kill one of the passengers!" she answered breathlessly. Mal stared at her with the briefest moment of shock before springing into action. Rushing down the bridge steps and through the foredeck, he hollered for his mercenary and first mate.
"What?" Jayne poked his head out of his bunk, but Mal did not stop to elaborate. He charged on past Inara and down the forward stairs. He leaped over the last few steps down to the catwalk and halted above the surreal scene unfolding before him.
"What the…" he pronounced under his breath. On the deck below, River was advancing on a terrified Wray Shen. A large knife from the galley was in her hand.
"River, what the ruttin' hell do you think you're doin'?" Mal shouted down at her. She gave no indication she even heard him.
"Captain, what… " Simon, drawn by Mal's shouting, started to ask as he emerged from the commons, but he stood immobilized in the doorway when he spied his sister. "River! What are you doing?" he called when he regained his voice, but his words had the same lack of effect as Mal's. River continued moving inexorably forward on her target.
"What the hell? She gone nuts again?" Jayne questioned, skidding to a halt behind Mal on the catwalk.
"She just came after him," Inara answered from behind them.
"Inara, what were you…" Kaylee's question was cut off with a gasp when she caught sight of what was happening below her as she came down the stairs as well. She watched in frightened confusion with the rest of them.
"River. River, listen to me. Please put the knife away," Simon begged his sister, edging carefully towards her. She paid him no heed and did not even seem to notice his approach. "River…" he reached out to put a hand on her shoulder as he got close, but before he could she twisted swiftly and elbowed him in the stomach, hard. He staggered and fell onto his back, gasping. Without showing the least bit of concern for her brother, River turned her attention back to Wray. She brandished the knife, its tip extended menacingly towards him. Wray kept backing away towards the airlock, but he was running out of room.
"No!" Anna cried suddenly, flinging herself past Mal and the others, down the stairs, and across the bay at the girl. Whatever she was about to do, though, River countered it with astonishing speed. She caught the woman by the arm and twisted it behind her back. Then she yanked Anna close against herself and pressed the knife blade to her throat.
"Anna!" Wray cried, lurching towards his wife. Heart racing, Mal pounded down the last flight of stairs to the cargo bay floor. He planted himself a few paces away from River and forced some calm into his voice.
"River, I don't know what's gotten into you, but you put down that knife right now and let her go." She ignored him. Her face was stone, still set on Wray. "That's an order, gorram it!" he shouted. Nothing. "River, so help me…" he drew his pistol from his holster, and that caught her attention. She cast a glance at him, and he froze immediately. Chills raced down his spine. River was not looking at him. She was not there. In her place was something else. But he recognized what it was. Those eyes, harsh and dispassionate, almost inhuman for their lack of emotion, he had stared into them before. The last time he had seen them, they had been holding a gun on him in the Maidenhead. A quiet fear, always in the back of his mind since then, was now screaming at the forefront. This is not happening again, he thought furiously. But an instant later, he knew exactly what to do. Suddenly, River jerked Anna around to face him.
"She will be dead before you say it," she declared flatly, scoring a thin, red line across the woman's neck as she did. Mal's blood turned to ice, the phrase he was about to speak choked off in his throat.
The ominous sound of Zoe's mare's leg chambering a round echoed throughout the hold. Poised on the catwalk, she had the muzzle trained steadily on River, face grim and tightly controlled. Jayne also drew his gun now, holding it up and at the ready but hesitating to point it at River. He flicked his eyes nervously between Mal and Zoe, and the girl and her hostage. River quickly assessed their positions and returned her soulless gaze to Mal. If having Zoe's weapon pointed at her concerned her at all, she did not show it.
"Sir?" Zoe's appealed to him without taking her aim from River, waiting for his command. Her voice wavered, the strain showing through even her mask of calm. Mal's mind spun frantically, trying to push through the confusion and fear for some sort of plan. Simon was still on his back, wheezing in agony. He looked like he could barely breathe, let alone speak. Even if one of them could say the safe word, it was a sure bet Anna would suffer some injury, if not be killed outright. Either way, the Doc was in poor shape to help. Kaylee and Inara stood at the back of the catwalk now, terrified and clinging to each other, helpless to do anything as well. Zoe had a clear shot, though. Maybe if she just wounded River, hit her in the arm so she would drop the knife and give him a chance to subdue her. That at least might… River's cold gaze bored into him and brought his scheme to a dead halt. He realized she could read every thought in his head. She would know the instant before he barked any order to take her down. Something like triumph flashed behind her eyes and Mal felt like he might be sick. There was nothing he could do to stop her.
"Anna," Wray called to his wife, something desperate in his voice. That was the only indication Mal had that anything was about to happen before the explosion knocked him off his feet. Then all hell broke loose.
There was no flash or detonation of any kind, but a thunderous shock wave tore apart the cargo hold. With a roar, the concussion slammed into River and Anna first, ripping them apart. It flung Anna across the floor towards her husband, himself tumbling backward against the airlock. River skipped over the steel floor plates in the opposite direction and slammed hard into the rear wall. She lay still in a tangled heap. Simon spun on his back, sliding towards the commons, while Kaylee and Inara were blown down as well. The wave almost threw Zoe off the catwalk and tossed Jayne clear over the railing of the landing. Crates toppled and bounced around. Whirling dust stung the eyes. Up above, the mule screeched and swung wildly on its moorings as the shock rebounded off the hull. Then the roar subsided and bodies and debris came to rest. An eerie silence settled over the hold.
"Zoe?" Mal called for his first mate as he struggled upright.
"Unngh," Jayne's groan wafted up from somewhere among a pile of crates. Mal looked around from the seat of his pants, assessing the situation as best as his stunned mind could. Simon, still doubled up, crawled over to River's inert form.
"She's… out," he wheezed in between coughs.
"Simon!" Kaylee recovered some composure and scrambled down the stairs to help him. Wray tended to Anna, who lay limp in his arms, also apparently unconscious. Mal looked at the disaster zone around him as he rose to his feet.
"Someone wanna tell me what in the name of all the hells in all the Verse just happened?"
The throbbing was what worked its way into River's awareness first. It was only slightly less intense than the headache from her hangover. Her mind moved like tar, taking a long time to convey the message to her eyes to open up. When they did, the glare was so bright that she closed them again. She heard a groan, not realizing at first it came from her. She tried to sit, but could not move her arms enough to push herself up. She chanced opening her eyes again, but her pupils had trouble focusing. When they finally did resolve things into some semblance of clarity, she squinted around, trying to see where she was. Leaning to one side, she felt something cold and hard tug at her arm, limiting her movement. She looked down and discovered that her wrists were bound to the chair she was in by handcuffs. Dread panic flooded through her, jolting her sluggish mind into alertness.
"Simon?" she called in a tiny, terrified voice, jerking futilely at her restraints. "Simon!" A door slid open before her and Mal stepped through.
"Easy. You're in the infirmary," he explained. His presence eased some of her immediate panic, but fearful confusion replaced it.
"Why am I like this?" she asked him.
"Just a little matter of you tryin' to murder our passengers." She would have thought he was joking at any other time, but Mal was not smiling. He was deadly serious.
What have I done? she wondered, but found no answers in her memory.
"You wanna explain to me what happened?"
"I… I don't know…" she stuttered in reply to Mal's question.
"You mean you don't know why you did it, or you don't know what happened?" She shook her head to both questions. "Let me jog your memory a bit." Mal stepped close to her, leaning down and locking his eyes with hers. And she saw. She saw herself standing in the cargo bay, holding a knife to a woman's throat. She saw herself turn to the captain, felt his blood run cold as she threatened him with the woman's life. Then, impossibly, she saw debris flying round as a sudden blast threw him to the ground. "You see all that? It help you remember yet?" Mal's words were not kind, but she was barely hearing them. Her eyes darted erratically around the room as she tried to process his memories. "Now, can you explain to me what happened?" he asked again. She stared at him, utterly lost and on the edge of breaking.
"I don't know," she whispered.
"The let's go with what you do know." She struggled for control, trying to recall the last thing she remembered before waking up in the infirmary.
"I… I was in the galley. Then they came in with Inara, and…" her voice failed her as she recalled what had sparked her terror. No! The fear overwhelmed her again as she realized that it was not over yet. She was in danger. They all were. "He's from the Academy," she whispered, her voice so tremulous that it was hard to understand.
"Dr. Matthias." Mal leaned away, folding his arms, not sure what to make of her statement. At that moment, Simon appeared in the doorway behind him.
"Simon!" River cried, beside herself with both relief at seeing her brother and fear for him. "It's him! He's from the Academy! I saw it! You can't let him take me back!"
"It's okay," Simon limped to her side whilst glancing at Mal with an uncertain look.
"She thinks one of the passengers is from the Academy," Mal clarified for the doctor.
"He's not who he says he is! He's Dr. Matthias!" River asserted, twisting against her handcuffs, almost physically trying to escape from the fear in her mind.
"Shh, easy, mei mei," Simon put his hands on her shoulders and pushed her gently but firmly back into the exam chair. "Dr. Matthias isn't here. No one from the Academy is here to hurt you. It's all just bad memories coming to the surface." He did not believe her.
"No. No! It's him! Simon…" she pleaded. She had felt the man's thoughts. She knew it was true. Or was it? Between Simon's disbelief and her own distraught composure, doubt started to creep in. What if what she had experienced was not real. Had it been just a flashback as Simon seemed convinced it was? And if it was, why had she been triggered by it? She knew that was the only explanation for her behavior. The captain had not said so, but the concern was riding just below the surface of his thoughts, and it was borne out by what she had seen of his memories. Had she really almost killed someone by mistake because of her conditioning? It was too much for her to endure at the moment. "Simon!" she broke into tears. "What's happening to me?" Simon cradled her head against his shoulder.
"Shh, mei mei," he soothed again, but the words held little comfort. He was just as lost and confused as she was.
"She's to stay here until I say otherwise," Mal ordered, not swayed by her tears. "When she leaves, she don't go nowhere without you," he indicated to Simon, "and either myself, Jayne, or Zoe. I still need her to plot us a course, but I'm relievin' her of her watch duties, and she goes back on the meds. This ain't happenin' again on my ship." Simon did not protest. Neither did River. She knew that beneath the controlled anger of Mal's words was a fear, terrifyingly real and present. She saw an image of her standing before the captain with that cold, dead stare. And she saw Mal shoot her, because he had no choice. She buried her face in Simon's shoulder and cried. "Doc, I'd like a word with you," Mal requested, nodding towards the infirmary door as he exited.
"I'll be right back," Simon promised as he unwound himself from River. She let him go, falling limply back against the chair, her tears still flowing. When the infirmary door closed behind him, it might as well have been a prison cell slamming on the remnants of her freedom.
Mal stepped out of the infirmary after his brief interrogation of River, dark thoughts clouding his mind. He did not like what she had told him. He had hoped, along with Simon and everyone else, that she was better, that they would not have to worry about this anymore. But he was wrong. Now he had to try to put the pieces back together and figure out what caused it. Until he did, they were all in danger. But at the moment she was secure, and he had his crew and passengers to check on. In the common area, Inara tended to Jayne on the couch. She was gingerly wrapping his ribs with medical tape while he pressed a cold pack over the right side of his face.
"How you doin', Jayne?"
"I been thrown off some stairs and done a face-plant into a pile of gorram crates. How do you think I'm doin'?" Mal shifted his attention to Inara. She did not say anything, but he read the controlled fear in her eyes. She was rattled, but she was holding together. He gave her a tiny, grateful smile, thanking her silently for her strength. Kaylee, on the other hand, was curled up in a chair, eyes full of the blank stare of shock.
"Kaylee? You okay?" Mal asked.
"Y… yeah. I'm fine, captain," her voice trembled just a touch.
"You ain't hurt?"
"No, I ain't hurt. Is River okay?" she inquired of her friend. Mal did not answer but turned his grim expression to Simon as the doctor shut the infirmary door and joined them in the commons.
"I don't know," Simon sighed, leaning against the wall and favoring his sore side.
"The Shens are resting in their room," Zoe announced, approaching the gathering from the passenger dorms. She looked around at everybody before settling her gaze on Mal. "Sir, what exactly happened?"
"Think you can shed some light on this?" Mal invited Simon to explain.
"It's flashbacks, I think. Post-traumatic stress manifesting from the torture River went through at the Academy. She mistook one of the passengers for someone she remembered from there."
"Mistook? Seems to me she was pretty certain Mr. Shen was this Dr. Matthias character," Mal countered. "How do you know she wasn't pickin' up on somethin' we don't know?" he cast a wary eye toward the passenger dorm.
"Because I met the man when I broke River out," Simon said. "He was in charge of the experiments on her. And if he was here," he added, his face darkening into shades of disgust and hatred, "I would have killed him myself."
"Fair enough," Mal conceded. "But that don't answer the other question. How was she triggered?"
"Is that even possible?" asked Zoe.
"No," Simon denied.
"I beg to differ, Doc. You didn't get a good look at her face," refuted Mal.
"But there's nothing on board Serenity that can trigger her."
"You know that for a fact? You said yourself we don't know how many of them are out there. Did anybody see her or talk to her beforehand?"
"She was in the galley eating when I brought the Shens up to get some food," Inara offered her account of the events leading up to River's attack. "She just went sort of rigid when she saw them. She looked like she was about to faint with fear at first. But nobody said anything to her."
"Well, all's I know is she's stone cold crazy," Jayne inserted his opinion. "This ain't the first time she's come at someone with a butcher's knife, remember? No matter how much better she gets, she could still snap on any one of us."
"I'm of a mind to agree with Jayne," Mal said. "Flashbacks and nightmares are one thing if she was normal," he looked at Simon. "But she ain't normal. Alliance conditioned her to kill. When she takes to that, ain't nothin' any of us can do to stop her."
"There's the safe word," Simon reminded him quietly.
"'Cept she knew I was gonna say it, which is why she nearly slit that poor woman's throat."
"Then we all should learn the safe word. If it happens again, she can't stop all of us at the same time," Zoe asserted, though Mal was somewhat dubious on that last point.
"And if that don't work?" Jayne pressed.
"Why wouldn't it?" Inara asked.
"Doc?" Mal checked with Simon.
"It should work." Simon affirmed, but there was less than certainty in his voice.
"But if it don't…" Jayne repeated.
"Then the only way to stop her is to put a bullet to her," Mal finished the unspoken thought around the room. A heavy silence descended.
"Here's a crazy idea I got," Jayne broke in. "Why don't we just get her off the ship?"
"No. We can't do that," Kaylee spoke up for the first time.
"'Cause she's family, Jayne," Kaylee protested.
"Ain't my sister," Jayne muttered.
"There's no place she can go," Simon turned to Mal.
"I know that, Doc. Trust me, I'm hopin' with all my being that it won't come to that. For now, though, I think we go with Zoe's idea. Each of us has gotta learn the safe word. Now, the other thing I want to know is who set off a bomb inside my cargo hold?"
"That wasn't a bomb," Zoe levied her assessment. "If it was, we'd all be frozen and floatin' away."
"So what was it, then?" Mal drove on. No one spoke up. "Anybody see anything? Simon?" he looked to the doctor again.
"All she had was the knife. I didn't see a grenade or anything else in her hands."
"Neither did I," Zoe confirmed.
"Me neither, but somethin' blew up in there. I got the injuries to prove it," Jayne added.
"What about the passengers?" Simon suggested.
"Wasn't really watchin' them," Zoe glanced at Mal, who rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
"Wray did say somethin' to his wife just before it happened. Sounded almost like he was warnin' her, but I didn't see him throw anything."
"Could've been remote operated," mused Zoe. "Blast like that, the device would be pretty small. Easy to hide." She and Mal shared a knowing look.
"Wait, are you sayin' they brought a bomb with 'em?" Kaylee asked. "What for?"
"I ain't sayin' anything yet," Mal answered her. "But might be we want to take a closer look at the Shens' luggage when we get the chance," he gathered Zoe and Jayne with a glance. "I want one of you two keepin' an eye on them 'till they leave. If they ask, tell 'em it's just a precaution. Be on the lookout for anything suspicious. Meantime, Doc, you're to teach everyone the safe word. All of you, write it down, keep it in your pocket, memorize it. I don't care what you do, but have it ready in case you need it. I'm gonna go look in on our passengers for a minute. Zoe, you've got the helm. The rest of you get started on cleanin' up the mess in the hold."
"May I stay with River?" Simon ventured.
"Safe word first," Mal instructed, and Simon nodded in understanding. The rest of the crew gathered around him while Mal took his leave and headed into the passenger dorm. He approached the door to the Shens' room and knocked lightly. "It's the captain," he called.
"Come in," Wray answered. Mal stepped inside and slid the door closed behind him. Wray sat on the edge of the bed, Anna lying beside him. He was tense and nervous, though Mal reckoned he would have been, too, had a psychotic girl just tried to kill his wife.
"How is she?" he nodded towards Anna.
"Doctor says she's fine. Just bruises, maybe a little soreness. I think it overtaxed her system, though. He gave her something to put her to sleep."
"Good. Glad she'll be okay." He let a short silence fill the space. "I'd like to offer my apologies for what happened," he said
"Who was that?" Wray wanted to know. Mal had debated how to answer that inevitable question. He decided honesty was better than any story he could make up.
"She's the doctor's sister. She's a bit touched in the head. Doc looks after her as poor girl ain't got no other family. Normally she's sweet as can be. Never done nothin' like this before. Don't know what got into her." Well, it was mostly true. Wray nodded, accepting it in any case. "The girl's restrained. She'll be locked in her quarters for the duration of the trip, so not to worry. I'll gladly refund your fare if you like," he offered, though not without a pang of regret.
"I appreciate that, Captain," the man mumbled. He had the far-off look of a person who had just seen something too incredible to believe. Mal noted he did not make mention of the mysterious explosion that had wrecked the cargo hold, which he thought was a touch odd. Not that he could make up any explanation that would not sound impossible or insane if the man had asked. The whole thing was disturbing as hell, and he would have been just as glad not to think about it, either.
"You need anything, you give the doctor or myself a holler." Wray nodded and Mal quietly exited the room, leaving the couple to themselves.
River trudged like an inmate under guard from the bridge to her bunk. Simon followed behind her with Mal, conspicuously armed, trailing them. She had finished programming them a new route to Anson's World and was now about to spend the remainder of the journey in confinement in her room, except for regular excursions to the bridge to ensure their course remained true. Simon had protested the treatment as too harsh, but River was not so sure she disagreed with Mal's sense of precaution. After all, she had almost killed someone again thanks to her conditioning. How could they trust her after that? How could she trust herself? She was glad that they did not encounter anyone else along the way. Mal's wary alertness and Simon's helplessness were bad enough, but she was not sure she could handle finding out just how afraid the rest of them were of her. They had every reason to be, but knowing it and feeling it were two different things for her. However, she would not have to feel much longer. Simon's injection was starting to take hold already. She felt it dulling her senses, dragging her down physically and mentally into an eventual daze. At this point, she welcomed it.
The small procession halted at her door. Without a word or glance at either of them, she swung onto the ladder and descended into her room. She took a seat on her bed, eyes downcast, and Mal pulled the hatch closed. She twitched just a bit as the locking mechanism engaged. Then she heard the footsteps retreat, followed by silence.
Alone. That one word echoed across her mind. She did not move for a long time, just listening to those two syllables reverberating throughout the hollowness inside her until it was all she could hear. After a while it ceased to mean anything anymore. Swallowing and wiping away the unshed tears, she raised her head to look around at her newly painted prison cell, because, after all, that was what her room had become now. There was no escaping it, just like there seemed to be no escape from what the Academy had done to her. She had no idea what would happen next. Would Mal throw her off right away, or would she spend a few weeks or months as a virtual prisoner until they finally gave up on her? The pain of those thoughts threatened to overwhelm her again so she shifted her mind to something else. Maybe she could not physically leave her room, but her mind was free to roam wherever her imagination could take it. She closed her eyes, imagining the flowers on her wall were in her garden instead. She replaced the steel panels and cold floor with blue sky and smooth, green grass. A bird chirped somewhere. She felt the breeze kick up, and stray leaves danced around her. She followed one with mindful precision, tracing its path, trying to predict where the wind would carry it next.
Please grow for me. Be my Eden. Overspread my prison. Set me free from this place. Shatter my chains. Don't leave me here. Please… Please…
"I'm still completely against this," Simon turned to Mal after the captain had secured River's hatch, his face twisted with frustration.
"Duly noted. No go see if they need any more help cleanin' up the hold," Mal answered, unfazed by the doctor's protest.
"How am I supposed to help her if I can't even see her?"
"Sorry, Doc," Mal shot that down again for the umpteenth time. "No one's gonna be by themselves with her in her room or anywhere else, and I ain't got time to spare to babysit you two."
"Mal, I'm her brother. I highly doubt she's going to hurt me."
"Right, 'cause that elbow to your gut was just an accident." Simon made to retort, but then quickly deflated. "Look, Doc, I get that she's your sister and you wanna take care of her and all. But after what happened, I ain't trustin' anyone around her alone."
"But she might be able give us some clues as to what caused this. And she can't…" Simon looked down, his anger diminishing to almost plaintiveness. "She can't stay there like that."
"It don't please me any more'n you to lock her up like that, but I ain't takin' chances. Give us some time to sort things out and then we'll see. But you are not to go down there by yourself, dong ma?"
"Yes, sir," Simon answered, his head still down and bitterness tingeing his voice. Mal watched him turn and shuffle painfully towards the forward stairs. He sighed, heading up the foredeck and making his way to the bridge. He tromped wearily up the steps and dropped into the co-pilot's seat which creaked with protest.
"Things never are simple," he muttered.
"No they aren't," Zoe agreed from the helm.
"Any word on the newsfeeds about us?" Mal asked after a brief silence.
"None. Alliance is keepin' it quiet so far."
"No doubt," he replied with mild condescension. "What about bulletins?"
"Haven't checked yet," said Zoe.
"Might be a good idea. At least that'll give us a clue as to how tight a lid they're keepin' on this." Mal leaned back while Zoe accessed the Cortex and brought up the latest fugitive alerts.
"Um, sir?" she spoke up a few seconds later, her voice tight with concern. "Have a look at this." Her tone had Mal out of his seat and by her side before she even finished the request. Peering at her screen, he examined the image displayed there. It was a standard Alliance fugitive bulletin, something he was familiar enough with, although the first oddity that jumped out at him was the reward amount. One million credits. His eyes widened at that. The second thing he noticed was the photograph. It was the portrait of a smiling man. He had a long face with neat, close cropped hair and thick, rimless glasses. Behind the lenses lay a pair of soft but prescient gray-blue eyes. The picture was vaguely familiar to Mal, but only after his mind discarded the glasses, replaced the trim haircut with long, curly locks, and added some facial hair did he recognize the man for who he was. It was Wray Shen. That alone was shock enough, but the last thing he noticed sent his mind reeling. Beneath the portrait was the fugitive's name. He could only stare at it in incredulity.
"Dr. Matthias Harder," Zoe read it aloud. The two of them shared a look of disbelief. Mal could barely fathom it was possible, but there it was right in front of his face. Wray Shen was actually a fugitive, and Number One on the Alliance's most wanted list no less. Then, a terrible, knotted feeling sank leaden talons into his gut, filling him with guilt.
"River," he murmured. She had been right, or at least right that Wray Shen was not who he claimed to be. Amidst the reproach he felt for himself for not trusting her, fury at being deceived began to well up. "That gorram, son-of-a...!" he snarled. "Come on!" He spun towards the bulkhead and tromped with furious purpose down the stairs to the foredeck. Drawing his pistol along the way, he checked the chamber.
"Sir, I seem to remember mentioning somethin' about takin' on passengers and trouble," Zoe reminded him, keeping stride at his side.
"Zoe, I'm sure one day we'll be lookin' back on all this, and we'll laugh, and you'll tell me I told you so, but right now I'd really appreciate it if you'd shut the hell up."
"Yes, sir," she cocked her mare's leg, but the faintest edge of a smirk clung to her mouth.
They descended the stairs to the common area, weapons drawn. Passing the infirmary window, Simon gave them a surprised stare and started to come out.
"Stay there," Mal ordered him and turned towards the dorms. Jayne was leaning against the door opposite the Shens' room, but he came to attention the moment he saw Mal and Zoe with their guns at the ready.
"Trouble?" he hissed, unholstering his pistol.
"More'n enough of it," Mal grumbled. He paused in front of the door and leaned an ear close. He heard no voices, just a faint shuffle of someone moving around.
"Either o' you gonna tell me what's goin' on?" Jayne whispered. Mal did not offer an explanation, but motioned for the man to cover one side of the doorway. Zoe took the other side. Then Mal slammed open the sliding door and thrust the muzzle of his gun right into Wray's stunned face.
"You lied to me."