"You're a gorram fugitive," Mal accused Wray. The astonished man stared back, frozen by Mal's intrusion. He knelt next to his wife, a vial and a full syringe in his hands. Mal took in those details for a fraction of a second, then grabbed Wray by the collar and flung him bodily out the door. The man stumbled into Zoe who thrust him towards Jayne. Jayne shoved him to the ground. Wray crawled backwards away from his assailants on his hands as Mal menaced him again.
"Mal, what are you doing?" Simon was out of the infirmary and halfway across the commons now.
"River was right," Mal answered him. "His real name is Dr. Matthias Harder. He's wanted by the Alliance. Saw the bulletin myself." Simon froze, staring at the man in stunned silence.
"Captain, you're making a mistake," Wray urged.
"Then you best enlighten me real quick, 'cause from where I'm standin' I'm not sure whether I should turn you over to the people who are after you, or just put a bullet in your wu yong ass and toss you out the airlock. The only mistake I made was lettin' you on my boat," Mal spat. The steel in his voice was matched by the click of the hammer as he pressed his gun to the man's forehead. Wray stared past the barrel with desperate eyes. "Doc," Mal called to Simon, his sights never wavering from Wray. "Go get your sister." Simon finally shook himself out of his daze.
"I said get your sister. I want her to have a little peek into his mind. Then we'll figure out just who the hell you really are," Mal finished at the man.
"I lied to you, Captain, about my identity, I admit," Wray started. "But I swear I did not do anything to harm the girl. If I had known she was on this ship, we would never have come on board."
"So you do know her," Mal narrowed his eyes.
"No… no, I don't," Wray rushed to deny. "I've never met her before."
"But you know somethin'," Mal levied, and the guilty twitch of Wray's eyes told him he was on the right track. "So what is it, then? A man's gotta do somethin' pretty drastic to get a million credit bounty on his head."
"Did you say a million credits?" Jayne interjected, eyes alight with fresh interest.
"Wray?" A small voice issued from behind them. Mal turned to find Anna leaning on the door frame of her room, looking frail and scared.
"Anna," Wray heaved himself up and ran to her, wrapping her in an embrace.
"Mal? What are you doing?" Inara interrupted the gathering as she and Kaylee came in from the cargo bay. "What's going on here?"
"That's what we're tryin' to suss out," was Mal's response. "I don't know who you and your wife really are," he directed his statement at the Shens, "but I better get some questions answered real quick or I'm gonna put you both off my boat the first chance I get. Whether or not we're in atmo when that happens is gonna depend on your answers."
"Mal!" Inara protested, astonished.
"We'll gladly depart in peace at whichever port you choose, Captain," Wray hurriedly assured, "and you can forget you ever saw us. Just don't turn us over to the Alliance."
"Why not? A million credits for one little fugitive don't seem like such a bad proposition to me," Jayne chimed in, inching a little closer to the Shens. Wray took half a step back and placed himself protectively between the big man and his wife. With the thought of that much cash in his coffer, Mal could not bring himself to completely disagree with Jayne, even though their own standing with the Alliance made it a remote possibility at best. But Wray did not know that, and no sense in giving up the advantage. The man's eyes shifted to him, and Mal saw his expression harden into a set of defiance.
"You're not going to turn us in," Wray stated.
"That a fact?" Mal raised his eyebrows in challenge.
"You can't. Not without risking getting captured yourselves." The charge struck Mal into silence.
How the ruttin' hell did he figure that out? Did Wray, or Matthias, or whoever he really was know something about them? A man with that large a price on his head had most definitely ruffled some feathers in the Alliance, and maybe taken a few secrets with him. Or maybe he was just taking a shot in the dark. In either case, Mal started to consider it might be best to do away with both of them now. Although neither seemed prone to violence, that did not mean they were not dangerous. After all, taking on Simon and River had seemed harmless enough at first. And he surely was not running short on fugitives aboard his boat. He was not usually one to condone drastic action, but the immediate safety of his crew was a more pressing concern at the moment. It might save him a lot of trouble later.
Wray was watching his face with those sharp gray-blue eyes and seemed to suddenly realize he had grasped the wrong end of the sword.
"Look, Captain, I don't really care why you're running from the Alliance, nor do I want to know," he backpeddled from his earlier boldness. "But my point is we're both on the run from the same people. It's safest for all of us if we don't ask questions and just go our separate ways." Mal did not answer, regarding him with a hard-edged stare. "Please," Wray's desperation returned. "I only want to keep me and my wife safe. I'm sure you can appreciate that."
"I surely do," Mal flashed grin devoid of any real pleasantry. "Jayne, Zoe," he snapped. Wray's eyes widened in fear as the two crew members lunged from either side. He pushed Anna back towards the room, but there was nowhere to go beyond that. Jayne took one large stride forward and yanked him away from the door. He tried to resist, but the mercenary twisted his arm sharply, sending him to his knees with a cry of pain.
"No!" Anna cried, but Zoe wrapped her up before she could move to help. As it was she nearly collapsed, her mouth twisting in pain, leaving Zoe to practically hold her up so she did not drag both of them down.
"Cap'n!" Kaylee cried in surprise, but Mal paid her no heed.
"You see, the problem with secrets is they got a way of comin' back to haunt you," he stalked close to Wray, his expression dark and dangerous. "You think I'm just gonna let you stroll off my boat knowin' the names and faces of me and every one of my crew, so that when the Alliance finally does pick you up you got some leverage to bargain with? That's not how it works. You're gonna repay the favor and share, whether you want to or not. Hold 'em here," he ordered. "Doc, c'mon." He spun and marched towards the stairs, passing Simon who was still staring at their former passengers, now prisoners. But two seconds later the doctor's footfalls sounded on the stairs behind him.
"Mal, what are you doing?" Simon called.
"I told you, I'm gonna have River take look into their heads. Maybe she can shed some light on this."
"I don't think she's going to be up to facing…"
"I don't care!" Mal shot back, whirling at the top of the stairs. "No one comes aboard my boat and threatens my crew like that," he growled. He stomped on through the dining area, Simon still a few steps behind.
The noise of the disengaging lock startled River harshly from her meditation. It shattered her sheltering garden like a stained glass window. The abrupt return to reality and the lingering side-effects of the meds left her shaking. She took a few steadying breaths as the hatch to her cabin swung open.
"River," the captain called down. His voice was calm, but the razor's edge of tension beneath it threatened to slice right through at any moment. Still a touch disoriented, she rose from her bed and stared up the ladder at him. Mal's jaw was taut, the muscles in it twitching a little as they always did when he was stressed. Though the drugs moderated the worst of it, his apprehension still sung across her nerves like a bow on a string. "Seems like I might be owin' you an apology," he said. His gaze slipped off her face for an uncomfortable instant, as clear an admission of a mistake as he would ever give. "It looks as if our passengers ain't all they appear to be. I need you to come down and take a look for me," he went on. She knew exactly what he meant by that, and she turned away. The fear she had felt, the memories from the Academy that had overwhelmed her, she was not sure she could face those again. Not to mention what if whatever that had spurred her lethal conditioning to take control happened again? If something about the passengers could activate that part of her, would it be safe to be in their presence? Cold fear filled her stomach and a shiver ran through her. She could not risk it.
"I can't," she murmured up the ladder, head still down.
"It's all right River. You don't have to," Simon called down to her.
"I wasn't askin'," Mal retorted at Simon, his tone hardening. River flinched a little at it. "I gotta know for sure. These people might be a danger to us."
"So am I," she countered. She met Mal's eyes again, not bothering to mask the fear in hers.
"Look," he eased up a bit. "If there was another way I'd gladly choose it, but there ain't. I ain't exactly comfortable with it myself. But your brother'll be there. I'll be there. We'll all be there. None of us is gonna let anything happen to you."
"You can't promise that."
"Maybe not. But you're on my crew." The note of honesty in his voice drew her eyes back to his and she searched his face for a long moment. His worry and doubts were written plain on his face, and he was not trying to hide them. But she saw something beyond that, stronger than his fear, which she was surprised to find at all. He needed her. His crew, his family's lives might be at risk. And despite the danger she posed, he was willing to put his faith in her. She lowered her head again. She did not deserve that kind of trust. It did not make sense, not after what had happened today. Not after all she had put them through since she came on board. But there it was, and she could not turn her back on it. No matter how bad it got, they had never given up on her. Yet… her cynical side added. Still, she owed it to Mal and to all of them for showing her compassion and acceptance she had no right to.
"I'll do it," she finally agreed almost inaudibly. She felt the subtle shift in Mal's tension after she spoke. He was relieved she had consented, but that did not alter the overall peril of the situation he was putting her in. She bit her lip, frightened by the consequences she could not begin to imagine if something went wrong, but she placed her hand on the ladder and started to climb up. Simon's concerned expression was waiting for her at the top. She knew exactly what he was going to say and she turned away from him to close her bunk hatch so she did not have to face him when he did.
"Are you sure about this?" he asked. She closed her eyes, head down and one hand gripping the final rung as if for support. Simon did not understand. He could sympathize, he could imagine, but he would never understand. Of course she was not sure. How could she ever be? Fear still roiled in her gut, but it was not a matter of whether or not she could. She did not have much choice. She did not answer him, but just nodded without turning around.
"Let's go," Mal ordered.
River stepped between them, still not looking at either one, and made for the dining area. She felt Simon fall in a half a pace behind her with Mal following behind him. Black doubts assailed her already flimsy sense of determination while they marched through the dining area. What if she did change? Would she feel it coming on, be able to warn them? Would they have time to say the safe word? There were just too many unknowns, too many variables. Her fears continued to multiply as they passed through the rear passage. When they reached the top of the stairs to the commons her resolve finally faltered altogether and she stopped.
"What is it?" asked Mal, his voice tight. She sensed him reaching for his gun and knew it was as much to protect himself from her as from any potential threat she might have sensed below.
"River?" Simon rested a hand on her shoulder and she jumped at his touch, startling all of them. The meds must have been wearing off because she felt his protective concern engulf her. Other times so intrusive, at this moment it was suddenly like a shield, enveloping her in a cocoon of safety. Simon loved her, and would stand by her no matter what. After all, he had given up everything to come after her once before. He would not hesitate to do it a second time. Through all the uncertainty about what lay ahead since arriving on Serenity, Simon was the one constant she could always count on. She felt him unconsciously lending her his strength. It bolstered her flagging confidence. She could do it for him, if nothing else. She searched out his hand and clasped her fingers over his, gripping so tightly that she hurt him a little. Then she closed her eyes, steeling herself for the unpredictable, and slowly started down the stairs. She moved on memory and instinct. The cold corrugations of the metal bit into her bare feet and she latched onto the sensations, something to keep her anchored in reality. She took the steps one at a time, taking a second or two to plant each foot and become fully aware of the patterns of the grating pressing into her skin. Through them she felt the faint vibrations of the engine's thrum, so familiar now, the heart of the ship that had become her home and her sanctuary. She realized that, in her own way, the ship was lending her strength as well. What would have become of her without Serenity? She did not care to entertain the notion and instead offered silent thanks, long overdue, to the vessel. Then she continued down.
As the stairwell opened up into the commons, the mental pressure of the minds of those gathered there started to press against her. She brought her attention to bear on the muddle of sensations, fighting to resolve them into distinct impressions. There was Kaylee, all blossoms and sunshine, though clouds of fear were at the moment darkening her usually cheery thoughts. Inara was there, too, crystalline, with the strength and beauty of a diamond, but just as brittle. Zoe's piercing attention found her next. Dark currents churned beneath the apparently calm swells of her thoughts. Jayne's mind felt like a lion, prowling and pacing, licking its lips in anticipation of something. And from behind her still flowed Simon's sheltering love and support, and Mal's wary trust. Doing her best to thrust those accustomed consciousnesses out of the way, she opened her eyes on the two passengers. They were both on their knees on the floor. Jayne loomed over the man while Zoe stood guard above the woman. A miasma of unease like the twinge of an impending headache or the aches of a rising fever hovered over both of them. She swallowed, a wave of her own fear threatening to overwhelm her, but she plowed through it and turned her mind on the man first. She reached for his thoughts and felt… nothing. Well, there was not absolutely nothing. His presence was there, evidenced by the pressure at the back of her skull, but she could not make out any coherent impression of his thoughts. Frowning in confusion, she screwed up her face and concentrated more intensely, to no avail.
"Well? Who are they?" Mal's impatience interrupted her.
"I… I can't tell," she muttered, bewildered.
"There's nothing. His thoughts aren't there."
"What the hell does that mean?" Mal demanded. River shook her head, ignoring the captain's incredulous question, and shifted to the woman. Immediately a flood of crippling pain hit her. She gasped and grabbed for the railing, nearly falling.
"River!" Simon's grip tightened on her and she had to lean on him to stay upright. "What's wrong?" "She's… she's hurting…" River relayed through clenched teeth, and even that much took supreme effort. On a primitive level, every human brain reacted almost identically to physical pain. Thus it was one of the most powerful emotions, and relatively easy to sense. However, never had she actually been able to experience another's pain like this before. It always came as more of an intellectual awareness, recognized by its effect on the higher thought processes more than physically felt. She might be able to pinpoint the location of the pain, maybe even feel the slightest phantom sensation of it, but never anything so visceral as what she felt right now. Her joints burned and ached, and her head throbbed. It was agony as real as it could have been without it being hers. Aside from that, there was not much she could sense from the woman, but for an instant something else did touch her. Like an electric shock, a surge of energy flashed through her before being swallowed into the agony again. The woman whimpered and River could not prevent herself from crying out in sympathy.
"Stop! Please!" the man suddenly burst out. River gladly tore here mental sense away from the woman's suffering to focus on him again, and she immediately felt an outpouring of concern directed at the woman. It was a familiar sensation, so much like her brother's feelings for Kaylee, but containing something even deeper that she could not grasp with words. "She's in agony. Please, Captain," the man begged Mal.
"Not 'till you explain who you are." The man shot his eyes to River, desperate.
My name is Matthias Harder. I am a doctor. My wife has Bowdens and she needs her treatment. Please let me help her! The thought struck River with such acuity that she just stared at him. She had never read anyone's mind so clearly before. Usually she just got a muddy impression of words and visuals, mixed in with a healthy shot of emotion. But his thought had come through as distinctly as if he had spoken it aloud, even including his tone of voice. She went stock still, eyes saucer-wide.
"Well?" Mal was still waiting on Matthias to answer. Through her astonishment, River managed to make her mouth work and spoke for him.
"His name is Matthias Harder," she repeated what she had heard in her mind, eyes still locked on the man. "He's a doctor. His wife has Bowdens and needs her shot." She felt Mal frowning behind her back at her response.
"You positive?" he asked. River turned to him, eyes large and serious.
"I thought you just said you couldn't read him?"
"I can now," she uttered, letting her mental sense search over Matthias again. Whatever else he might be lying about or hiding, his urgent concern for his wife was unmistakably honest.
"What about why they're runnin' from the Alliance?" River dutifully focused her senses once more, though it was getting harder to ignore the woman's distress. With effort, she shifted that to a rear corner of her mind and sought out Matthias' thoughts. He met her gaze, the fear in his mind as clear as that on his face, but his thoughts were stubbornly indistinguishable once again. Her sporadic ability to read him was both confusing and frustrating.
Who are you? She knew it was futile, but she hurled the mental question at him anyway, as if it might help break through whatever barrier was preventing her from seeing into his mind. It was so minute that perhaps no one else even noticed, but she saw him flinch just a little in response to it. It took approximately a tenth of a second for her intellect to wonder about his reaction before she deduced the answer, and the shock of realization slammed home. "He's a reader," she blurted out. Disbelief rippled around the room, the reactions of the crew mirroring her own. No one moved or spoke.
"That true?" Mal finally broke the silence with his question to Matthias. Most of the captain's anger had now drained away into confusion and uncertainty.
"Yes, it's true," Matthias admitted, his head falling towards the floor and muffling the words against his chest.
"Gorram it," Jayne hissed with a mistrustful glare. He slid a step further back from Matthias, a hand ready on the grip of his pistol, though it remained in its holster for the time being. Zoe treated the man to an even more hostile glare than Jayne, and her mare's leg did rise a little towards him. The escalating tension might have concerned River, but she was devoting most of her mental strength now to blocking out her awareness of Matthias' wife. The woman was radiating pain like an agonized star. River tried to keep it at bay, but it was impossible to withstand for long.
"Simon, please," she turned to her brother, almost as desperate as Matthias now. "Help her." Simon turned his eyes up to the captain. Mal, face still drawn in lines of confusion, finally nodded. Simon slipped around her and headed for the infirmary.
"Our room," Matthias stopped him. "The syringe. It's got Pescaline in it." Simon abruptly reversed direction and headed for the passenger quarters.
"You sure 'bout this, albatross?" Mal asked her quietly as he descended the stairs to stand alongside her. Mal still doubted, still worried, but his trust was there as well. He would believe her. She nodded, but that was the most she could muster. She sank to the stairs and averted her eyes from the two prisoners, repeating her mantra with a strained whisper in an attempt to escape from the pain into her sanctuary garden. Mal issued a sigh. "Let 'em go," he ordered. At that moment the woman collapsed at Zoe's feet with a cry.
"Anna!" Matthias was at her side before anybody could stop him, cradling her in his arms. Simon returned then, carrying the syringe.
"Let's get her to the infirmary," he instructed, kneeling down to help, but Matthias' lanky form just lifted his wife's limp weight without much struggle. Simon led them through the door of the infirmary and began attending to his patient immediately. Meanwhile, the rest of the crew closed in around Mal at the center of the commons. River remained seated on the stairs, trying to recover as the woman's pain slowly receded from her senses, but she listened in to the conversation.
"What the hell's goin' on here, Mal?" Jayne asked.
"I'm still workin' on that one."
"If he really is a reader, could be that's why the Alliance is after him," suggested Zoe. Her eyes slipped to River, and the others' followed suit.
"He is," River confirmed.
"That would explain a lot," Mal agreed. "But not everything. There's still too much here we don't know."
"Well I know one thing that'd be real simple. Just turn 'em in. You gonna pass up an easy million credits like that, Mal?"
"No. We can't," Kaylee snapped with some vehemence. She glared at Jayne. "What if they do to him like they done to River?"
"Like I give a baboon's ass crack about them," Jayne shot back.
"Not likely to happen in any case, Jayne," Mal went on. "We can't just waltz on up to the Alliance and hand 'em over without gettin' pinched ourselves. Or have you forgot about that part?" Mal had a hard look for his mercenary, who folded his arms with a scowl and looked obstinately away.
"So what are we going to do, then?" Inara wondered aloud.
"No more flyin' blind. We need the full story," Mal stated. He turned away from the group and headed into the infirmary. River watched through the window as he began speaking to her brother and Matthias. Wheels were turning. She could feel it. Though she did not know what it meant, she could tell something was happening. They had discovered another reader, one also wanted by the Alliance. One whom she had almost killed. That left a lot of questions in her mind. But as the captain said, they had yet to know the full story. The truth was painful, though. Uncovering it about Miranda had nearly destroyed them. She could only hope this time around it would not be so deadly. But somehow she doubted it.
No one had moved very much by the time Mal emerged from the infirmary, escorting Matthias ahead of him. Jayne was leaning against a strut closest to the passenger dorms now, arms folded and not quite scowling. Zoe had taken up a post on the back of a chair with a clear view of the infirmary and its occupants. Inara and Kaylee sat next to each other on the couch, although Kaylee made haste to join Simon by the infirmary door when he emerged behind the other two. River kept herself apart from everyone, still sitting on the stairs despite the cold and uncomfortable metal digging into her bottom. Maybe it was just psychological, but distance seemed to help diminish her ability, and it had been overtaxed enough today as it was.
Mal halted Matthias in the center of the room. Jayne and Zoe shifted from their positions, moving to close the circle about him. Whether intentional or not, the man was surrounded now, and River saw in Matthias' face that he knew it.
"All right," Mal started in on him, crossing his arms. "How's about you tell us the whole truth this time."
"Yes," Matthias nodded. "I'm sorry about before, but I wasn't sure I could trust you."
"And now you can?"
"Yes, I think so. It's not like I have much choice anymore," he shrugged. "I don't know who your sister is, Dr. Tam," he turned to Simon, "but I think I know something of what happened to her." Simon's mouth gaped a little.
"How?" River's brother demanded. Matthias sighed a little.
"I was once the head of a special government school on Osiris called the Academy of Gifted and Advanced Studies." Surprise was evident on everyone's face as he spoke, but all River was aware of was a cold shower of fear instantly soaking her mind and body. She stared in horror, involuntary tremors shaking her limbs. Her instincts screamed at her to run up the stairs and get away from this man, and she only just barely managed to suppress the urge. As it was, she jerked up from her seat on the stairs, tense and fearful. Mal glanced at her and almost unconsciously moved his hand within reach of his holster, as did Zoe and Jayne. She was not sure if the precaution was intended to be against her or Matthias.
"I'm not likin' this story already," the captain warned.
"That was before it became what it is today. Before I left and became a fugitive," Matthias explained swiftly, his color blanching a little.
"What about your wife? She from there, too?" Zoe asked.
"No," Matthias shook his head. "But she's a reader as well, although she is a bit… different." He gave a glance towards the infirmary where Anna was sleeping, but it was unreadable, even to River.
"Great," Jayne snarked. "So now we got three feng mind-readers 'board this ship. Cap'n, you got some kinda special power for attractin' loonies?"
"Jayne!" Kaylee chided him. "They ain't crazy."
"Well, so what? I mean how do we know he ain't just makin' this gou shi up?"
"River says he's a reader, and given that the Alliance is out for him, I'm inclined to believe what he's said so far," Mal replied.
"Well, who says he can't be lyin' to her, too?"
"Would you like me to prove it to you, Mr. Cobb?" Matthias turned and glared at the big man with unexpected anger. "You don't want to believe me because you'd much rather turn me and my wife over for that reward money. Does that convince you?"
"That ain't no secret," Jayne spat. "Hell, anyone here coulda told you that. Tell me somethin' you ain't s'posed to know," he challenged.
"It doesn't work like that. I can't just go digging through your mind and pull something out. You have to be thinking about something for me to read it. Even then, interpreting thoughts is not as easy as it sounds. It's far simpler to pick up on emotional states since they're more universal."
"Some reader," Jayne snorted contemptuously.
"What does all this have to do with the Academy?" Simon interrupted.
"The Academy was meant to be a place to study psychic phenomena and help people who exhibited abilities like ours. It was supposed to be a refuge," Matthias lowered his head, his anger turning quieter, more distant.
"What happened, then?" Inara quested with her particular style of gentle encouragement.
"Some people in the government got ideas," Matthias' answer was rife with bitterness. "They decided that psychic talents represented a vital strategic and military asset and saw an opportunity to use them. After the war, apparently there were some in Parliament who were willing to go to any lengths to prevent such a situation from happening again. Maybe their motives were honest, I'll never know. Lord knows I never want to live through that again. I survived the war on Athens, although..." his voice caught and he swallowed heavily, "my first wife and daughter did not." The pang of loss from him that slipped through River's mind was heartrending and nearly brought tears to her own eyes. "But I moved on," Matthias recovered and soldiered forth with his tale. "Afterward, when the Alliance started taking note of my research and invited me to join the Academy, I thought I had finally found my calling.
"You see, no sensible person believes in mind reading or other psychic abilities. It's just not possible. That's what my parents told me when I was first able to explain to them the strange feelings I had. They thought it was a phase and assured me I would grow out of it. But I never did. And as it persisted, it started to take its toll on my mind. I grew more unstable and gradually became so unable to function that they had no choice but to institutionalize me. I know it tormented them to do so, but they believed I truly was crazy. I believed it, too, much of the time. What else was I to think? So from my pre-adolescent years until I was well into my teens, I spent most of my life in and out of mental wards. But eventually I learned a few tricks to cope with it. I also read whenever I could. Books, I mean. I was a bright student and I kept up with my studies as much as possible. I delved especially into psychology and the physiology of the brain because I needed answers. Part of me knew I was not crazy and was convinced that the things I felt were real. I just had to find a way to prove it. By the time I was eighteen, I had my talents under control enough that I could be 'reintroduced' into society. I applied to the University of Athens and even won a scholarship. I entered their med school and pursued a specialty in neuropsychiatry, all the while dedicating as much of my time as I could spare to trying to uncover the origins and nature of my ability. After I graduated, I secured a decent position at the university as a researcher, and it became my passion. Colleagues warned me it was professional suicide, but I could not ignore what I knew was the truth. I devoted everything to my research and published papers containing what I thought was irrefutable evidence of my discoveries, only to be met with disbelief and even outright derision. The university did not take kindly to one of its researchers espousing such dubious claims and my fledgling career was soon in jeopardy. I started to doubt myself again. Then the war came and rendered all that moot. After I lost my family, it did not seem to matter anymore, and I was ready to give up. That was when the Academy contacted me and I found out I was not alone.
"It turns out near the end of the war the government had started investigating the possible existence of psychic talents on its own. Apparently, while my research was languishing in academic oblivion, it was providing scientists at what would become the Academy with key insights that led to huge leaps in understanding what those abilities were. My guess is they planned to utilize them in espionage or other some other way during the war, but the fighting ended before they could advance that far. The research continued, however, even though the immediate threat was over, funded and fueled by the pet insecurities of those few in Parliament and the military who knew about it. Of course, the work was done in complete secrecy to preserve their precious advantage."
"Typical," Mal muttered.
"In a way it makes some sense if you think about it, Captain. What if the discoveries were made public and it was revealed that readers were out there among us? Assuming you actually believed it, how would you react to the sudden revelation that your neighbor might be able to pry into the most private sanctuaries of your mind? You see, they knew they had to be in control of both the knowledge of the existence of these abilities and the people who expressed them, if only to preserve social order in the Verse. Again, whether their aim was benevolent or not is beside the point. They sought me out for whatever reason because I was a gold mine- a scientist who not only understood these abilities, but had them as well. Which was why they more or less forced me to work for them if I was to be allowed to continue in my research. If I knew then what was to come, I would have gladly abandoned it all, but at the time I was ecstatic. Someone was finally acknowledging my accomplishments and offering me all the resources I could ever want to further pursue my studies. It was the best possible turn of events my life could take. The government was particularly interested in children so it could study the growth and development of psychic traits over time. It created a school of sorts- the Academy, as you now know, to seek out and recruit these youths, and I was assigned to head it. When I got there, my task those first few months was to locate as many young people of talent as I could. I scoured news feeds, medical records, case studies, and even the gossip and tabloid columns. Then I went bouncing from one end of the Verse to the other tracking down the leads. Most were dead ends, but a few did bear fruit. Some of those I found were in terrible mental shape, even worse than I had been as a youngster. There was very little I could do for them. But others were fairly well-adjusted, figuring out ways to live with their abilities as I eventually had. I interviewed them, tested them, discreetly, of course, and invited those whose profiles fit the government's interest to come to the Academy. I could hardly wait to begin studying them, and learning from them as well. I had no doubt they could teach me as much about our shared talents as I could teach them. It was a dream come true.
"But the dream didn't last long. I wasn't even in charge a full year before I started noticing some insidious changes. They were unassuming at first, a few more military personnel about, and more interest in specific applications and capabilities than pure research. Later, though, there was considerable pressure for my work to yield practical results. It was disconcerting, but I considered it simply a consequence of working for politicians and military men who wanted their investment to serve some practical purpose. It was only when they started pushing for more 'rigorous' methods of study that I really became concerned. They were asking me to implement techniques I considered unethical and even dangerous. I tried to fight them as best I could, but despite being in charge of the program, I quickly realized I had little real power or control. Whatever the initial goals of the Academy had been, they were soon subsumed by far more important political and military aims. I lost control of funding and hiring staff. Because of my opposition to the new methods, I was not allowed contact with any students or access to the latest data. I was forced into an administrative prison where all I did was fill out forms and file meaningless reports. Finally even that was taken from me when the Academy was folded into the military's Special Weapons Research and Development division. At that point, I was given an ultimatum- work for them and do as I was told, or spend the rest of my life in a prison colony."
"Was that when you left?" Kaylee asked. Matthias glanced sidelong at her and sighed heavily. His head hung between his shoulders, and River felt shame and guilt pressing about him like an invisible leaden aura.
"No," he carried on, his voiced muted as he remained looking at the floor between his knees. "I caved. I hoped that if I agreed, I could still affect some influence on the direction of research, be a moderating force. But I was fooling myself. In reality, I was simply too afraid to do anything else. So I signed my life over to them and betrayed everything I had been trying to do and build there. After less than a month of seeing what they were doing, and what they were trying to do, I knew I could not live with myself if I stayed. So I fled. That was in December of 2512."
"You've been on the run for more than six years?" asked Simon.
"Yes," Matthias nodded, raising his head again. "I've been moving from planet to planet, and so far have managed to stay out of the Alliance's way. I came to Paquin three years ago, and that's when I met Anna. She reminded me so much of what I was like when I was younger, still innocent and thrilled with the discoveries I was making as a university student and researcher. She was so special. We shouldn't have stayed so long, but we had started to carve out a bit of a normal life for ourselves. I should have known it would catch up to us eventually."
"You said Anna was different. What did you mean by that?" Inara asked, picking up on that earlier detail. River glanced up, sensing Matthias' sudden nervousness. He was hiding something, something to do with Anna. He was afraid, too. It was a deep, sickening fear, a helplessness that she had only known once before, when Simon lay wounded and bleeding on the floor of Mr. Universe's complex. She realized that Anna was everything to him. He was afraid to lose her, and he would give up his life to keep her safe. Whatever secret he held, he could not be sure it would not put her in danger if he revealed it.
"No sense in trying to explain it. You wouldn't believe me if I did," was all he said.
"We've heard you out this far. She got somethin' to do with why the Alliance wants you?" Mal prodded.
"No, they want me because of what I know, both about readers and the Academy. They don't even know Anna exists, and that's the way it will stay," he vowed.
"You seem pretty adamant about that," Zoe edged in.
"Yes," Matthias' answer came out stern. "They can't get a hold of her. What the Academy would do to her is..."
"So, she's got somethin' special about her, then. Somethin' the Alliance might want," Mal continued to press. Matthias met Mal's gaze with stubborn silence, but River caught a quick mental flash from him, a brief replay of her attack in the cargo hold. Matthias had told Anna to do something, but without speaking. Then there was the explosion and…
"She caused it," she said, figuring it out. Matthias shot her a surprised stare. It morphed into a furious glare and his mental impression on her awareness suddenly retreated. It was not completely gone, but just vague and imperceptible like it had been when she first tried to read him.
"Caused what?" Inara turned to her, along with the captain.
"She caused the storm in the cargo hold. With her mind," she elucidated, and Matthias looked away from her, his expression both angry and fearful.
"You're kidding, right?" Zoe responded with rational skepticism.
"Is that how it is?" Mal asked Matthias. Matthias shifted defiant eyes up to the captain, but his shoulders slumped in defeat.
"Yes," he returned quietly, looking away again.
"You're saying she's telekinetic?" Simon asked, equally as skeptical as Zoe. "That she can move objects with her mind?"
"Not just anything. Only very small things. Like…"
"Like air molecules," River quipped for him. He threw her another look, though more acceding than angry this time.
"Yes," he confirmed.
"She caused me to go flyin' over that railing and smash my face?" Jayne snapped from the wings.
"In a manner of speaking."
"Gorram it! Any other psycho skills you got that you mighta forgot to mention?" the mercenary exclaimed. Matthias ignored him, turning back to Mal.
"She isn't dangerous," he said. "I'm sorry about wrecking your cargo hold, but she only did that to protect us. But now do you understand why the Alliance can't find us? They can do whatever they want to me, it won't matter. But if they found out about Anna, found out what she is…." he gulped down his last words, unable to consider the thought.
"Don't take much to imagine," Mal's gaze wandered pointedly from him to River. Then his eyes drifted away, turning inward into contemplation.
"Are you satisfied now, Captain?" Matthias questioned after enduring the silence for a space. "Do you still wish to throw us out of the airlock?"
"You and your wife'll be safe here for the time being," Mal responded, coming back to himself. "Leastways until we figure out what we're gonna do."
"I'm very sorry to put you in this position, Captain," Matthias shook his head sadly. "We just wanted to get to Georgia, maybe see her parents on Regina. She hasn't seen them in four years. This wouldn't have happened if we hadn't waited so long." Mal's lips pursed, a clear indication that he agreed wholeheartedly, but he had enough tact not to say so.
"We'll figure out a solution to all this in due time."
"Thank you," Matthias breathed with true gratitude. Mal nodded brusquely and headed towards the stairs.
"What should the rest of us do?" Kaylee asked.
"You got chores," he waved his hand as he climbed to the upper deck with Zoe as his shadow. Jayne cast a scowl at Matthias before including River in the look, although the intensity of it diminished slightly as he did.
"Gorram moonbrains," he grumbled irritably and turned towards the cargo bay.
"Dr. Harder," Simon approached Matthias.
"Please, call me Matthias," the other doctor corrected.
"Yes… Matthias. How much do you know about what the Academy did to their… subjects?"
"Not much, I'm afraid. As I said, I left before I was corrupted too much by their efforts."
"But you understand more about it than I do." Matthias' eyes slipped from Simon to River, and she knew he was picking up on the same desire from her brother that she was.
"You want me to help you figure out what they did to you sister."
"Yes. I've tried everything I can think of for River, but I just don't have the right knowledge. And if you can… read her, maybe you can find some clues to what they did and how to reverse it." Behind his carefully couched request, River sensed in Simon a swelling of hope. It was not the cautious optimism which had accompanied most of her gradual recovery, but an honest and true belief that maybe with Matthias' help they would finally unlock the answer to healing her completely. It was so vibrant she was almost afraid to share in it lest she taint it somehow with her own misgivings.
"It may not be as easy as you think," Matthias gently cautioned, "but I'm willing to make the attempt. If she consents to it," he met River's eyes again, and she looked away.
"Thank you. I know it will be difficult, but we…"
"I appreciate your care for your sister," Matthias interrupted calmly, but with some authority, "but River has to agree to accept my help herself. You cannot speak for her. What you're asking might require me to do more than simply read her surface thoughts, and even that I would never do without permission. However, those kinds of deeper probing can be very… unpleasant for another reader to endure."
"You mean you haven't read her yet?" Simon asked, confused.
"Only brief glimpses. Incipient thoughts. The most basic survival skill a talented individual learns is how to block his or her awareness of others' minds. Reading her, or anybody, without permission is an unconscionable violation of privacy," he leveled a serious gaze at River and she understood his ire at her before when she had picked the clues about Anna from his mind. But how did he expect her to avoid it when it was right there at the forefront of his thoughts?
"You can control it?" Simon went on.
"Yes, of course."
"I don't think River can," Simon glanced back at her with a frown.
"What?" Matthias looked truly shocked.
"I think they made her that way, so she has to feel, but I don't know why. They stripped her amygdala and that might have made it hard for her to…"
"That's… that's… are you sure?" Matthias interrupted, face growing more aghast.
"I did a scan of her myself not too long ago," Simon nodded. Matthias' sick expression held out a few more seconds before he suddenly flushed scarlet.
"Those…. chi mei! Barbarians!" he snarled with enough force that River began to grow a little frightened. "I saw where they were headed, but I can't believe they actually went that far!" He shook in his rage, clenching his fists on his knees and staring a hole in the wall. Eventually, though, his anger faded down and he hung his head, shaking it several times. When he looked up, his eyes held nothing but sympathy and sorrow for River. "I'm so sorry," his voice wavered a little with awkward emotion. "I don't know what they did to you, but I'm sorry for whatever role I may have played in it, and for failing to stop them." Almost involuntarily, she met his eyes and could not look away. Deep within those blue-gray pools, she saw a torment not unlike her own. The Academy had hurt him, too, taken away his life and dreams. But it was the guilt that scarred him the worst. Guilt that he had not done enough, that he had run and left those he had meant to help to suffer instead because he was too weak to face down their tormentors. It had always been there, gnawing away in the background, but now it hit him like a punch in the gut. She had made it real. It was too much for her to face. She tore her gaze from him and stared off to her right at an innocuous corner of the floor. Anything to just not have to feel his emotions anymore. Matthias stood up and moved a step or two away, also looking off into space at something unseen. Then he turned to Simon. "Of course," he told her brother gravely. "I will do everything I can to help her."