Chapter 9

In Kriegel's office the self-darkening windows were active despite the fact that it was late at night. Maybe he was paranoid, but he liked the extra assurance that no one could see in. He paced to the door, double-checking to make sure it was locked. After a moment's consideration, he unlocked it and stuck his head into the hallway. Not a soul was about in either direction. He closed and locked the door again, jerking the knob to ensure it was latched tight. Then he shuffled back to his desk, checking on the two spaces splitting his com screen. One half was occupied by the amber face of Soong Chu-yu, Representative from Sihnon and Chair of Parliament's Military and Security Oversight Committee. The other half was black, its occupant still missing. Kriegel paced some more.

"My apologies, gentlemen," a slightly breathless voice issued from the com a few minutes later. Kriegel stopped mid-pace and scooted quickly over to his desk. The empty half of the monitor was now taken up by an aged man with flabby jowls and barely enough hair to cover the liver spots on his balding head. William Halmer, the Director of the Security and Intelligence Agency, bowed in apology. "Representative Locherbie's hearings are taking up most of my time, as you know. I did not get your wave, Soong, until a little while ago."

"Hearings my pi gu," Chu-yu, cursed in quiet fury. "So, now that we're all here," he reserved a pointed glance for Halmer, "Dan, bring us up to speed."

"Yesterday the Fugitive Task Force received a report that Dr. Matthias Harder was on Paquin. Apparently he was hiding out with a group of traveling musicians. Colonel Babcock from the Heinlein quadrant command launched a raid this morning, but Harder had already boarded a ship for New Melbourne."

"So someone alerted him?" Chu-yu interrupted.

"We don't know. But we did get the name of the ship. The investigative team enlisted the help of the original source of the tip to help track it down. The wave code was a very sophisticated counterfeit but they secured a location trace using it, and the frigate Lancer was able to intercept. Unfortunately, the vessel managed to escape by performing an unaided burn."

"Suicide!" Halmer exclaimed.

"Maybe, but it's worked so far. The Lancer wasn't able to track them."

"Well, they can't get very far without navigation aids. Sooner or later they'll have to access the navigation network if they don't want to end up drifting into empty space. Tell Colonel Babcock to put all available vessels he has on this. I want them ready to strike when this ship reappears." Chu-yu ordered.

"He already has. But it's more complicated than that, Soong," Kreigel reigned in the representative's confidence.

"How so?" Chu-yu's eyes narrowed.

"The ship's name and registration were fakes. They don't exist. It also didn't have an operating pulse beacon. However, the Lancer was able to get close enough to capture some video before it fled." Kriegel took a deep breath before he went on. "The ship was Serenity." Chu-yu's expression froze, staring hard out of the com screen. Kriegel imagined the shock on the representative's face mirrored his own when he had learned of that same detail.

"Serenity?" blurted Halmer, equally astonished.

"Yes," Kriegel verified.

"That's not possible," Chu-yu protested when he found his voice again.

"I ran the video against all every image in the database and Serenity was the most positive match. Eighty-nine percent confidence. She had some very distinctive markings, and just looking at the footage myself, I'd say it's true."

"But Serenity was reported downed on that com station rock."

"However, if you remember, Soong, that report was filed by an Operative who deserted before his data stream was even fully uploaded," Halmer shot an accusatory look at the representative.

"Obviously the veracity of that report is suspect," Chu-yu bristled. "But the larger issue is, if Serenity is still flying under Captain Reynolds, and he has picked up Harder, what are the implications?" There was silence all around for a few seconds.

"It's possible Reynolds was attempting to set up a meet with Dr. Harder," Kriegel spoke first.

"Go on," said Chu-yu.

"The ship was hired by the same person who called in the tip," he explained. "Reynolds may have been trying to locate Harder through this contact, but it seems the reward got the better of her. Colonel Babcock has been trying to verify that, but she's been somewhat less than completely forthcoming about her motives."

"You're suggesting a conspiracy? Reynolds and Harder working together?" asked Halmer.

"Yes, possibly," nodded Kriegel. Chu-yu's brow knitted tight.

"But how did Reynolds locate Harder when we haven't had a viable lead on him for five years?" Halmer continued.

"Reynolds has contacts throughout the Verse, both legitimate and otherwise," answered Kriegel.

"Our operation was extremely thorough in eliminating his network leading up to Miranda," Chu-yu disputed. "I find it hard to believe we missed someone who would have some knowledge about Harder. And why now? If he knew about Harder, why didn't he try to contact him before Miranda?"

"Maybe he didn't know. Someone could have informed him afterward."

"Either that, or we have a leak," Chu-yu surmised. Kriegel fell silent after that one. It was bad enough what Reynolds had figured out about Miranda and made public to the whole Verse. What Harder knew could add to that damage exponentially. But if someone on the inside was feeding information to Reynolds, there was no limit to the havoc the man could wreak. It did not quite add up, though. All of his people who might even serendipitously come in contact with sensitive information of this level had been thoroughly vetted, their backgrounds probed and scoured and their present lives monitored down to every last movement. Still, only a fool believed than any security measure was foolproof, and Kriegel was no buffoon. He would have to go back and check all of the staff at the Academy, just to be sure. Halmer should do the same with his SIA Agents, and Chu-yu with his committee members and Operatives…

"Ai ya! Huai le," Kriegel almost slapped his forehead when obviousness of it hit him. "We do have a leak." The other two looked at him, surprised. "There's only one person who could have allowed Serenity to escape that com station and given Reynolds the knowledge to track down Harder."

"The Operative," Chu-yu proposed after a moment of brief consideration. Halmer's eyes widened as he connected the dots as well. Kriegel nodded.

"Miranda might have emboldened Reynolds to push even further, so, with help, he tracks down Harder. If Harder cooperates with him…" Kriegel extrapolated.

"But it'll all be hearsay from the mouth of a disgraced researcher," Halmer countered. "He still won't have any proof."

"Yes, he does," Kriegel corrected. "If Serenity is still flying, we should assume that the Tams are alive as well. River Tam would be all the proof he needs."

"This is da tou fo!" Chu-yu exclaimed bitterly. "You realize this could lead to a security breach orders of magnitude larger than Miranda. Then every hun zhang Border world politician like Locherbie with Independent leanings would have the self-righteous justification to call for hearings and trials and investigations. It would threaten the stability of the Alliance as a whole!" he lamented. "I will not stand for that!" His outburst dried up the conversation for a few seconds. The representative composed himself again in that space. "Harder and Serenity must be neutralized," he declared more calmly. "Dan, I'm putting you in charge of this. I'll get in touch with the Fugitive Task Force and let them know you are to take over this particular operation by my mandate."

"What do you prefer?" Kriegel asked.

"Capture alive Harder and River Tam, if possible. Harder may be the larger problem. He's too dangerous to let escape again. If you have no other options, terminate him. River Tam is a different matter. Do we still have some control over her?"

"I'll check with Dr. Qin, see what our options are," Kriegel advised.

"Do it."

"What about Serenity?"

"Reynolds is not one to give up on a cause just because it's hopeless. He'll go down fighting. The rest of the crew are a liability," Chu-yu shrugged. "Alive, if possible. Then we can at least interrogate them about what they know and who they told. But, do what you have to," Chu-yu emphasized.

"Yes, sir," Kriegel acknowledged as Chu-yu's half of the screen went black without any parting from the representative. Halmer nodded in silent seriousness before his image vanished as well.

Kriegel drooped in his chair, feeling the fatigue starting to get to him. He could not rest yet, though. Gathering his energy, he punched in another wave code. It took a long time for an answer, but, then again, it was late.

"Ni hao?" The video was so dark Kriegel could not make out the face, but he recognized the sleep-slurred voice.

"Dr. Qin. Sorry to wake you, but I have some urgent business."

"Oh, Major General. No, no problem at all," the doctor composed himself a bit. A light flicked on, illuminating the man's round face and unruly mop of black hair.

"We may have located River Tam again," Kriegel explained. Dr. Qin blinked several times as he absorbed that fact. "I need to know what strategies we have to recover her."

"Um… yes, sir, well… River Tam was one of only a few subjects to remain intact enough to be deployed. But even she did not complete the program entirely before she escaped. We could try the same method used to track her down before, sending out triggers across the Cortex," the doctor suggested, but he did not sound very optimistic about it.

"What's the issue with that?" Kriegel voiced his concern.

"Besides the fairly low probability of success by sending out random waves, she may not even respond to the triggers anymore," Dr. Qin explained,

"Why not?"

"Well, her conditioning is going to start breaking down, though some of the alterations made to her will slow its decay. However, she's been without regular exposure to those triggers for two years. We were fortunate last time that something still remained. There's no telling how much that might have changed in the last few months. She may still respond, or she may have forgotten."

"So you're basically saying we have no way of definitively reaching her, that it's all a gamble?" Kriegel summed up. Sheepish, Dr. Qin shrugged.

"Well, keep working on it, Doctor. This is highest priority now. I need you and your team on this right away. Dig into her file, find anything that might be useful."

"Yes sir. I'll get right on it."

"Thank you. I'll be down first thing in the morning for a briefing." He turned off the doctor's face and leaned back in his chair. It was going to be a long night.

River crept downstairs on padded feet. She wore socks this evening, as the floor felt a little colder than usual. She was groggy and tired, and though she had steadfastly avoided even the barest glance in any reflective surface, she could feel the deep bags under her eyes. After the day's tumultuous events, she did not dare let herself fall into anything deeper than a doze. Nightmares lurked on the edges of unconsciousness and she jerked herself awake every time she came close to slipping under. She had no inclination to find out what terrors her subconscious had prepared for her. So, after only an hour or two of meditation in her garden, she muscled past the weariness to rise and attend to her duties on the watch. On the bridge, though, Mal informed her that he was still keeping her off watch duty for now, and that Simon wanted to see her down in the infirmary. She got the impression that this relief from her responsibilities was borne out of her brother's request, although Mal was also not quite ready to completely trust her again with flying the ship on her own. Logically, it made sense. Any reasonably responsible captain would give her some time to recover rather than risk her making a mistake under stress. Inside, though, she sulked. They did not understand that being in charge of the ship, that doing something was more of a relief than any amount of rest could provide. Unoccupied, her mind had nowhere to turn but in on itself, and that was when the worst came out. But, she only acquiesced to the captain's instructions in silence and turned around. Plodding through the foredeck, she could already guess what Simon wanted to see her about. More than likely it involved something with Dr. Harder and his promise to help. She thought again of Simon's hope and wished she could share in it, but she could not. Something still made her nervous. She had only a notion of what lay in those dark corners of her mind, but that was more than she wanted to know. If Dr. Harder went probing around inside her, she did not think she would like what he found, and neither would he or her brother. Still, she could not deny Simon the chance make some progress. She only did not want to see his hope shredded again, or worse.

Tiger in a cage, the metaphor came to her unbidden. Beyond the bars that guarded the darkest recesses of her subconscious, she sensed the presence. Its eyes watched her. That was what disturbed her most of all. Whatever construct the Academy had created out of her conditioning, it was only now that she was really becoming aware of it. She knew it had always been there, but never as anything more than a dark place she feared to tread. Now it was like there was another person, another River inside her. That was all the more frightening because it was equally aware of her. It studied her with the eyes of a predator. The same eyes the captain had seen. The same eyes she knew she would see in her reflection again if she looked hard enough. A tremulous shudder went through her as she mentally fled from its gaze, her steps through the dining area unconsciously increasing in pace. She hoped Simon knew what he was doing.

She treaded downstairs into the common area, finding Kaylee chatting with Anna on the couch. Apparently the woman had recovered from her attack in the interim, though her cheeks were still a touch wan and her posture was limp enough to suggest she was probably too weak to move with any haste. Her face held a smile, though, as she conversed pleasantly with the mechanic, and she seemed at ease. Kaylee tended to have that effect on people. It was just her nature. It was also inevitable that the mechanic could not stay away from their passengers for long, regardless of whatever apprehensions she had about earlier events. Her genuine inquisitiveness was stronger, and they were far too fascinating to leave alone.

"So, bein' able to move things with your mind must be pretty handy 'n all," Kaylee was saying. Anna smiled, a little embarrassed.

"Well, I can't move just anything. Only really little things a little bit."

"Yeah, that's what Dr. Harder said. But I don't get why not?"

"It takes a lot of energy."

"Like more than it would to move somethin' normally?"

"Yes. I think," Anna sounded unsure. "I'm sorry," she apologized. "I'm not real good at explaining it. I just do it. Matthias tried to tell me once how it works, but even he's not certain. I'm trying to remember how he said it," she pondered, one finger rubbing her cheek. "Um, let's say I wanted to lift this cup," she leaned over the table and picked up Kaylee's teacup. "My muscles use energy to get the strength so I can lift it. But there's nothing like muscles to turn what I've got in my mind into a force. It's just energy, so all I can do is send it out. With something like the cup, it'll take a lot more energy than I have to cause it to do anything. Eventually it might get warm, but it's not gonna go anywhere. But with air, the particles are so small it doesn't take much to get them moving."

"Oh, I get it," Kaylee's eyes lit up. "It's a kind of radiation. Like the sun causing a breeze on a hot day. That makes sense. So, you're like a tiny little sun. Isn't that shiny?" Kaylee beamed.

"I guess so," Anna shrugged, coloring slightly.

"So, what's it like when you're tryin' to move the air, like that windstorm you did in the hold?" Kaylee pressed on. Her curiosity as to how things worked was insatiable, and Anna was not exempt from it.

"Umm… it's kind of like… well, I guess lightning and thunder is a good example," Anna struggled for the right analogy. "I store up a bit of energy and release it all at once, like a lightning bolt, and it hits the air and makes it move." Kaylee leaned closer, eyes eager.

"Can you show me a little bit? Just once?" River piquantly sensed Anna's surprise at that request. People just did not go around asking her to demonstrate her telekinetic ability, especially not after she had thrown the cargo hold of their ship into disarray with it. She was far more accustomed to being treated like a freak of nature at the slightest hint of difference. Caution, honed over the years, automatically fell into place and she regarded Kaylee with skeptical glance. It quickly softened, though, as she sensed, as River did, the mechanic's honest interest. It threw her a bit, but she ultimately agreed to the demonstration.

"Okay," she said with a hesitant smile. Kaylee sat back, excited and grinning. Anna closed her eyes and concentrated. Watching, River felt an odd tingling in her mind. It was that pins and needles sensation when her hands or feet fell asleep, though not nearly as uncomfortable, and it was dancing across the surface of her brain instead. A tension gathered around the room. Although it was not visible, when she closed her eyes, she could almost see it mentally. She sensed a bubble of energy swelling around Anna like a dome. It grew as the energy built until, with a nudge from Anna's mind, it popped suddenly. The swell of power surged out into the room. As it rolled past River, a light breeze kissed her face, tickling her cheeks and rustling her hair. On the couch, Kaylee giggled with glee, clapping like a little girl.

"Ain't that the neatest thing?" Kaylee declared, turning to her.

"It is," River agreed, a wisp of a smile touching her lips as she shared in Kaylee's delight. However, Anna's expression quickly closed off into wariness when she realized River was in the room. She shifted uncomfortably on the couch, trying to retreat a little into the cushion. River's pleasure at the little miracle drained away, and with it the brief distraction from her fears. Anxiety and guilt returned in full force and she dropped her head, her smile disappearing. She felt rather than saw Anna make a conscious effort not to shudder, and a sting of envy and anger swam through her. Anna could do something amazing and wonderful with her talent, and all she could do was cause pain and distress. It was not fair that she could not control it. She swallowed the bitter taste suddenly in her mouth and willed her reluctant feet towards the infirmary. Without looking, she sensed Anna and Kaylee's eyes on her as she walked past, but she shut them out of her mind as best she could, feeling uncouth for intruding upon their pleasant exchange. Maybe Dr. Harder really could help her with his knowledge. Maybe he would find a way to free her from what the Academy had done. But as she stepped inside the infirmary, a third set of eyes was also upon her, invisible to everyone but her. The tiger prowled behind its bars, its attention fixated on her. Beneath its compassionless and almost mocking gaze, all her hopeful thoughts withered. She sought refuge in her garden, transforming it with a frantic thought into a dense jungle to hide her from those terrifying eyes, but that was only a temporary escape. She knew with the instinctual certainty of a prey being stalked that it was only a matter of time before it hunted her down. She did not know how long she could run from it. She only knew if it caught her, it would leave nothing behind.

"I sure hope your husband can help," Kaylee turned her worried eyes away from the infirmary as the door latched behind River. "Simon's worked so hard, and he cares for her so much."

"Matthias will try his best," Anna said, but she looked down at her lap, shifting uncomfortably again. "I'm sorry I reacted that way to her," she apologized. "I know what happened was not her fault, but she's still… she scares me a little," Anna admitted. Kaylee looked down as well. She did not like to think of River as dangerous, because deep down she knew she was not. The Academy conditioning had forced her to do all those terrible things, and that was different. But she would be lying to herself if she did not also acknowledge that River had frightened her more than a bit on several occasions. She heaved a sigh and fell back a little on her cushion.

"Why is it that bad things gotta happen to such good people?" she asked in general. "I mean, I ain't really religious an' all, but Shepherd Book always used to say things happened for a reason. That God had a plan, you know." She looked toward the infirmary again, shaking her head slightly. "I can't see why God's plan would be to do somethin' like that to such a sweet girl."

"I don't know if there is a plan," Anna said, following Kaylee's gaze. "But I do believe we can always change our lives. Look at me. I grew up on Regina. My momma and daddy worked in the mines. They figured I would, too. That's just what you did. But I wanted to play music instead. They thought I was bein' foolish at first, but I worked hard, and I didn't give up, and I got to live my dream, at least a little bit. Sure, I still got Bowdens, but…" She glanced over to the infirmary. "She'll get better," she assured Kaylee. "Nothing is preset." A hint of smile touched Kaylee's eyes, and a renewed hint of hope.

With a terrible mix of both guilt and hope, Simon stood beside his sister as she endured Dr. Harder's examination. River was reclined in the exam chair, but was anything but relaxed. Her jaw clenched tight and her nails cut into the plastic padding. Expressions, none of them pleasant, twisted her features as her eyes twitched beneath their lids. A fine glistening of sweat reflected the overhead lights off her brow and she trembled occasionally. Dr. Harder stood opposite of him, eyes shut, face slightly upturned but without expression. Watching the two of them, Simon felt supremely helpless. A part of him ached to put a stop to this and just wrap River in his arms and comfort her. He resisted the urge, reminding himself that it was necessary, that whatever Dr. Harder uncovered might help, but it still tore at him mightily. As it was, he could not even hold River's hand in support. Dr. Harder had cautioned that it might be more of a distraction. So he stood by and did nothing, waiting with agonizing patience for the thing to end. To that extent, though, he knew that as bad as it was to watch her endure it, he could not comprehend what his sister must actually be feeling. She had turned a faint shade of green when Dr. Harder explained that she would have to remember as much as possible in order for him to get a sense of what the Academy had done to her, but she made no complaint. She simply nodded and closed her eyes. He could not imagine the strength it took to submit to that, and it awed him in a way. Any normal person would have probably broken down into a gibbering mess long before this. He knew he would have. Of course, he also knew that River was not normal.

He could tell almost from his earliest memories that she was special. He guessed that was why he had always felt so protective towards her. Not that she really needed him to look out for her back then. She was perfectly capable of taking care of herself, even from an early age. In part that was the by-product of her intelligence, and in part it was due to their parents' busy lifestyle which did not always leave them time to spend with their children. He had learned to be pretty independent himself early on for that same reason. But despite how brilliant and capable and intelligent she was, there was always something about her that made him want to keep her sheltered. Maybe he resented her innate brilliance just a little bit and compensated by trying to keep her to himself, but perhaps he also sensed that she was just too unique for the Verse to really appreciate. He could appreciate her, though, and believed he could act as a buffer between her and the outside world which was not always so accepting of difference. However, even he eventually came to realize that he did not fully understand the scope of just how unique she truly was. As the girl he knew blossomed into a young woman, her perceptions, always keen, became startlingly uncanny. He saw the way her eyes captured the most subtle details others missed, and how she listened with such intensity it was like she heard not just the words spoken, but everything unspoken behind them as well. She also lost some of her childish fancifulness. She could still be a brat and never tired of showing him up. That was always her way of teasing him and having fun. But those kinds of expressions of playful affection they once shared grew less frequent as she grew older. She became more serious, and just a touch withdrawn. That concerned him. She never had much problem fitting in with other children despite her differences, but as she entered secondary school she was also entering that stage in life where social conformity was so integral to identity. She never said anything, but he was sure her uniqueness made her a target for some of the insecurities and jealousies typical of teenagers. That was why he was initially glad when she chose the option to attend the Academy.

But it was not until her final dance recital before she left that the profoundness of her exceptionality fully hit him. He remembered it vividly. The way she danced across the stage, her movements all fluid beauty and grace, it was mesmerizing. He never had much depth of appreciation for dance beyond her performances, but at this one, something changed. Her motions did not just give the piece a visual dimension. Somehow it was like she was translating the music through her body, as if she could reach beyond the sounds and structure to find the composer's emotions and draw them out with her limbs. Though he knew how hard she had practiced, it looked effortless, performed with an elegance that was as natural and inborn as a bird taking to the air. It was staggeringly beautiful, magnificent. Whereas up to that point she was still his little sister the genius, now he recognized that she was something much more, something so much greater that it almost hurt to be reminded of how overwhelmingly average he was by comparison.

At some point, when he was able to tear his eyes away and look around at the audience, he saw it was not just him. Every face was transfixed on her. Some were rapt with joy or delight, others with envy, but none could take their gaze from her. Most amazingly, though, was that she was not even aware of it. Or, given what he knew about her now, maybe she was aware, but it never seemed to affect her. She was always humble, demure, without a hint of arrogance. She never deemed herself superior in any way, but had instead always admired him and regarded him as the special one. He saw it in her face whenever she looked at him. It was one thing she could never hide. That was why it hurt so much when he got her back and found her gone. All that magnificence and promise had been twisted, distorted, and warped. It tortured him to see her graceful movements now timid and uncertain, her eyes fearful and inward-looking. Part of him cursed himself as a failure for not being able to help. He wanted to be like her then. For one day, just one day, he often thought if he could see into her dreams, hear the words she could not speak, and bring all that out into the open, then he would know what to do. But he was not like her. He was not special. He was a doctor, not a reader. So he did what he could, all the while hoping and longing for the day when he might be able to bring back the sister he remembered. It was all he could do, and the reason he kept going.

River uttered a little gasp on the chair and her eyes flew open. She breathed heavily, her pupils out of focus and staring at the ceiling. Simon tensed, waiting for something to happen, but nothing did. In the meantime, Dr. Harder staggered and collapsed into the spare chair near the door. Strain was evident beneath his pale and sweaty brow as well. He did not speak either, but just sat there, catching his breath and holding his head in one hand. A violent trembling shook River from head to toe and she closed her eyes again, wrapping her arms around her. She started shivering. Simon turned and fetched a blanket from one of the cabinets.

"Are you okay, mei mei?" leaned over her, tucking the blanket around her shoulders. Even though it was clear she was not, she nodded anyways. "I'm very proud of you," he told her, giving her hand a powerful squeeze. She squeezed back wordlessly. Dr. Harder sighed loudly from his chair and Simon glanced over, waiting for his report.

"I'm so sorry," he said, the apology directed at River. His eyes were laden with guilt and sadness. "I was afraid of them doing things like this when I left, but I never saw it. I never imagined they would do it." He shook his head, at a loss.

"What did you find?" Simon asked.

"She's been through hell," Matthias said with flat honesty. He took another deep breath. "The psychological trauma she experienced is… extensive. But, with time and therapy, she'll heal, I think. If she's endured this long, she has the strength to recover. The physical damage, though, that is permanent. But, the brain is plastic. It can adapt," he said, not without hope. "Once the psychological damage heals, the rest will be much easier to deal with. You're a remarkable girl in more ways than one," Matthias' words carried an air of admiration for her. "I know it was not easy." River nodded but did not look at him.

"Can I go now?" she turned to her brother, almost child-like. The urgency with which she wanted to get out of the infirmary was plainly evident.

"Yes," Simon nodded. She tossed off the blanket and disappeared out the door and up the stairs, Simon watching her the whole way.

"I'm sorry to have to put her through more when she's seen so much," Matthias apologized again.

"It's all right. If you can help her, that's what she needs. Besides, she had a choice this time." Matthias nodded, but his face was troubled.

"There was a part of her mind that I couldn't read, Simon. It was a dark spot, something that was blocked from her consciousness. Whatever it is, she was conditioned not to notice it. I only realized it was there because, when she got close, she got caught up in all kinds of fear and avoidance that kept me from seeing in."

"Do you have any idea what it is?"

"I have a guess. I think it is where they put her conditioning. You said before they activated her with a subliminal message. I think that is the only way to access it, with the right conditioned stimulus as a trigger. They created an alternate personality with the conditioning and kept it dormant until they needed it. It explains why she can't remember what happened during the times she was acting under its influence."

"Why would they do that?"

"Think about it. If you are going to create a weapon, what's better than one who doesn't even know what she is? One that you can turn off and on when you need to, and who will have no memory of what she does. It makes it virtually impossible for anyone to interrogate her and get any information, even under torture." The cold, rational logic of it made perfect sense, and it made Simon sick to think on it.

"Then why did she attack you and Anna if she wasn't triggered?"

"Maybe she was. A word, a phrase, even just a simple sound or smell could do it. They could turn anything they wanted into a trigger. Either that, or the conditioning is breaking down." He frowned deeply, rubbing his chin.

"That's good, though." Simon commented. "That means it will go away eventually, right?"

"Yes, but as her mind starts to reintegrate it, it may cause more problems."

"Like what?"

"Like memories and traits from that alternate persona might start to leak out. She might experience nightmares, mood swings, outbursts, and personality changes. It could be very unpredictable and traumatic." Simon recognized the danger now, a sinking feeling settling in his stomach. He recalled his conversation with the captain several days ago. He was starting to fear Mal was right. Matthias was looking at him with an expression that was so like River that he knew the doctor had read his mind.

"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have done that," Matthias flushed scarlet. "Intense use often leaves one more open and sensitive. It's harder shut things out for a while. But, you think it's beginning already with her," he said.

"Yes." Simon looked at the floor. "A few days ago she had a flashback. She saw a dead man in the dining area and said she had blood on her."

"Did she recognize him?""No, but it terrified her." Matthias shook his head, laying a supportive hand on Simon's shoulder.

"We'll keep an eye on her. As long as I'm here, I'll help you to help her. There's bound to be more, and she will need all the support she can get when it comes."

"Thank you," Simon uttered his gratitude.

"One more thing," Matthias added. "This is only speculation, but given what I've seen and the bing tai of those at the Academy, I would not be surprised if they did it."


"When you create a weapon, you have to be able to stop it if needed."

"You mean the safe word that makes her fall asleep. I know about that."

"No, I'm talking about if the weapon gets compromised." Matthias' look sent chills thrumming through Simon.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean a self-destruct mechanism. I don't know for sure if it's there, because if it is, it's probably part of her conditioning, where I couldn't see. I just thought it would not be right if I didn't warn you about my concern."

"Thank you," Simon managed to say, his throat and mouth suddenly dry. All this time it was possible that the Alliance could have sent out a message, just like the one in the Maidenhead, and simply killed River if they wanted to. For once he felt supremely glad that his sister was still so valuable to Alliance.

Night was pressing on into the next morning by the standard clock. Sitting up on River's shift, Mal was exhausted. But even exhaustion could not stop his mind from running through the sheer incomprehensibility of his situation over and over again. Now he had two pairs of Alliance fugitives, a full three of the four being readers. He shook his head, resting it against his hand as he leaned on the control console. Jayne was right. Something about him must attract all the crazies in Verse. He rose from the helm and wandered towards the galley. He needed a drink to calm his mind and his nerves. He found the whiskey Jayne kept around and poured a glass. A rustle of clothing caught his attention, and he turned and found River there at the door. She was dressed as she had been earlier in an old floral shirt and sweatpants that were cast-offs of Kaylee's. She paused at the bulkhead and stared at Mal as if she did not expect to see him there. There was something desperate in her eyes that sounded a warning bell in his mind. He did not see the lifelessness of the weapon in them, but she looked spooked as hell, even worse than she had been that night he found her in here screaming about a dead body.

"You alright?" he asked.

"No," she all but whispered in answer and wrapped her arms around her like she was cold.

"You wanna talk about it?"

"No," she answered again, but she paced across the dining area and pulled up a chair at the table. Mal followed her with his drink, bringing the flask with him as well.

"Mind if I join you?" he asked. She did not make an indication one way or the other, so he took the seat across from her. He eyed her carefully over the rim of his cup as he sipped his drink. Her head was down and her face hidden behind strands of dark hair, but every few seconds her body tensed or her fingers twitched on the tabletop. Then she would forcibly relax, sometimes with a small shudder. It was as if she was fighting some silent, internal battle. Draining his cup, Mal wondered just what exactly Simon and Dr. Harder had put her through down there. He poured himself another round, starting to feel a little disgusted by it all. He knew Simon would do whatever it took to help her, but after what she had been through recently, her brother might not have pressed the issue so soon. Of course, he had not exactly been the most compassionate towards her, either. A hound of guilt gnawed at him as he took another swig. He should probably apologize again, but damn it all if he was not just terrible at that sort of thing. Besides, what was he supposed to say? Sorry for imprisoning you in your room when you went psycho and tried to kill someone on my ship. Next time I'll be more understanding.

"Don't need to apologize," River spoke softly. Even so, he still jumped a little in surprise. She glanced up at him. Her eyes were big, limpid, and clear, with that blunt, sometimes distant honesty that occasionally affected her. "You were just trying to protect everyone. Including me."

"Don't make me feel much better about it," he said, tossing back the last shot so he would not have to meet her gaze.

"No. But it was the right thing to do. Still dangerous. Something's still not right inside."

"Maybe so. But we all got our own demons to contend with. Yours are just a little different than most."

"They're still afraid."

"Who is?"

"You. Simon. Everyone. Saw what I did. Even though it wasn't me," she looked down at her hands, dark hair falling over her face once more. In those oversized clothes, it made her look very small and vulnerable.

"It ain't that we're afraid of you, albatross. It's just that…"

"You can't explain it. Shouldn't have happened. There was no trigger." Mal sighed. She was right. Her sudden shift into the Academy assassin at Dr. Harder's presence was inexplicable, and more than a mite disconcerting. He wished he could feel differently, if only so she would not have to know. But there was no changing it. "It takes a long time for an albatross to learn to fly again once its wings are broken. Sometimes it can't." She looked at him between strands of her hair and smiled sadly. "May I have a drink?"

"Don't know if that's such a good idea," he said, a touch unsettled by her remark.

"It helps quiet the voices. And right now I don't think I can stand to listen to them anymore." Her words broke at the end, and Mal saw she was trembling slightly now. She was on the edge, barely able to hold it together against whatever was tormenting her inside. His better instincts warned him against it, but he had been to that place before. He could not deny taking refuge from his troubles in a bottle more than once. Hell, what else was he doing right now?

Let he who's never drowned his sorrows cast the first stone. He filled his cup and slid it over to her.

"Thank you," she murmured and took a sip, face still half-hidden in her hair. Mal gave her a tiny smile. Then he got up and went to the galley, came back with another cup, and filled it up. They drank together, enjoying each other's company in silence.

After sharing a couple more rounds, River eventually vanished off to her room, leaving Mal alone again to ponder, this time more on her than anything else. Even two years after escaping the Academy, she was still suffering. It had left an indelible mark on her one way or the other. Although he was no less desirous than Simon to see her cured, he considered himself a little more realistic about that expectation. It was probably true that her experience was not so different from his in the war. But after that valley, there was no way he could have remained the same person he had been before. Maybe he was a little damaged. Well, more like almost certainly. But maybe he was a little stronger, too. That was life in his estimation. It kicked you down, and you just had to get back up, brush yourself off, and keep flying. That was how he got on. He figured River could do the same, as long as she was given the chance. However, he did not think she would ever be the girl her brother knew before she went to the Academy. That was what he did not want to share with Simon that night in the infirmary. He did not think the doctor was ready to face it yet.

Maybe that was why he kept giving her a chance, though. From the beginning, through the Maidenhead, and even after this most recent episode, he saw something of himself in her that he could not turn his back on. That was his role, to give her the chance, to do what was right by her. And if he could do that for River, he thought, he could certainly spare some for Anna and Matthias. They did not deserve the horror the Alliance was sure to inflict upon them any more than River did. The choice was really no different from when he decided to keep the Tams on board, or when he risked his and his crew's lives to expose the secrets of Miranda. No matter the headache and heartache it might cause, it was the right thing to do. He swallowed the final drops of his last drink, remembering the words Book had once counseled him with not too long ago. It was his way. Taking that bittersweet memory and rolling it into his resolve, he set down cup and rose. He discovered he was a little more giddy than he anticipated, but that did not make a difference. Hell, maybe that was his way, too. Carefully, but with determined purpose, he marched back to the bridge.

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