River of Guilt

the mission

The crew quickly settled into a routine. Untamed made “supply” stops at various ports. Usually Inara piloted the ship, Simon handled communications, and River would hover close to her brother. She often watched Inara pilot the ship. Sometimes Kaylee would ride along to check out systems, or Mal would pilot to give Inara a break and a chance to meet an occasional client.

Wherever Untamed landed, Serenity would find an excuse to be in the area. They had a variety of ploys.

Actually having money to work with, Zoe and Jayne would buy cargoes on one planet and sell them on the next. Their activities were even yielding a small profit – especially since Mal never worried about import or export taxes or permits.

Book occasionally assisted by arranging small cargoes to be shipped from Abbey to Abbey. It wasn’t the kind of work Mal would ever have considered before – no money in it. However, now, Serenity is known as a ship of mercy for some.

For once Serenity’s operations were almost legal, allowing the crew to relax – or they would have relaxed were it not for the constant watch for Blue Sun or Alliance operatives.

Kaylee was spending a lot of time in both engine rooms. With the improved cash flow, she was able to install upgrades to Serenity’s engine and thrusters. Serenity’s handling improved until she was almost as agile as the Star Lincoln’s controls. Whenever Kaylee was aboard Serenity, and working in the engine room, she sang cheerfully. Hardly anyone noticed that when she was working on Untamed’s engines, she was quiet and withdrawn. She had trouble looking Simon in the eye. River would spend time with her and they had long conversations, but they weren’t playing their usual games.

Kaylee kept hounding Mal to make a stop at Boros. She was certain she could find a higher grade of parts for Serenity there, among the Alliance castoffs, and Mal suspected she was right. He kept putting her off, preferring to continue the watch on the Untamed. It was that ship that decided the final decision in Kaylee’s favor. The jury-rigged nature of the Star Lincoln made it susceptible to frequent glitches. Most wouldn’t actually stop the ship, or cause anyone to be lost in space, but it would make piloting sometimes tricky for Inara. Kaylee was spending a lot of time aboard the Untamed, and River drifted back to the engineering space to keep her company. Simon welcomed these visits as he felt River was sanest when she was around Kaylee. Kaylee’s simple love of life, and uncluttered mind proved very soothing to River. River favored Kaylee because she was closest in spirit to River’s ideal of her stolen childhood.

They were a day out of Boros when River confessed her guilt to Kaylee.

“I took Simon from his world. He’s a great surgeon, and now he wastes his time on me. I know he’s not happy. He’s like a caged bird.”

“River,” Kaylee put down the spanner she was using, “You are Simon’s world.” She couldn’t keep the regret out of her voice.

“Shouldn’t be … I should be in my world, and he should be in his. It’s not right, he isn’t free to do what he wants.” River looks at Kaylee. “He should be with who he wants.” There seemed to be a special emphasis on that sentence.

Kaylee nervously wiped one greasy hand on her coveralls and laid it on River’s shoulder. “He loves you. You’re family and way more important than a career in some antiseptic old hospital emergency room.” She grimaced wryly. “I think he is with who he wants.”

“If I were dead, he would be free.” River’s voice was distant, her eyes shifting to see something outside the ship.

“River, don’t talk like that. If you are dead, he’s all alone. You’re all he has, now. You can’t take that from him.”

“I’m going to see he gets his world back.” River paused, her eyes focusing back on Kaylee. “I’m going to give you a gift, Kaylee. I’m going to give you the only thing I have – you can have my brother.” She smiled and stroked the housing of the turbo generator. “You can take care of him like you do Serenity. You can fix him.”

She grinned.

“All I have to do is stop being River.”

Party Rhyme

Untamed set down on a quiet docking pad on Paquin. Inara went through the shutdown procedure, while Simon communicated with the Port Authority. River was acting restive. They had chosen Paquin because of the festival. River had heard about it on the Cortex and wanted to go dancing. Simon was hopeful that it would help her be calmer, and frankly, he wanted to see his sister do something she loved. Inara and Kaylee had come along. Mal had brought Inara’s shuttle down so she could visit some clients, and then slipped over to where Zoe and Jayne had grounded Serenity. They had put together a cargo of festival clothes and delicacies that were common on other moons, but were exotic on Paquin. They arrived the week before with other vendors who set up on the periphery of the festival. Book had contacted the local Abbey, and was helping them with their backlog of festival weddings and baptisings.

Wash was going over Serenity, preparing for a possible fast departure. He was anticipating the sale of the cargo, so he and Zoe could engage in their own version of festival dancing – horizontally – preferably somewhere private, off Serenity.

Almost everyone was relaxed. They’d been following the same routine for months, and nothing had turned up. Mr. Universe had told them that there was absolutely nothing on the waves. As usually Mal was fretting things were going too well.

Three days after Untamed arrived Mal started camping on Serenity’s bridge, constantly monitoring com channels. There’d been some interesting role changes. Jayne was playing shopkeeper for Serenity’s dwindling supply of trade goods. Wash and Zoe had finally managed to depart the ship to pursue their wedded bliss. Inara had gone to service some clients after transforming Kaylee into a Companion for Simon.

On the last night of the festival, Kaylee and Simon attended one of the smaller parties for couples. Nearby, River was dancing her heart out at a group dance for people who loved to dance but had no partners. Book had decided to take a break from weddings and was quietly watching her from a nearby buffet table. Several young men seemed drawn to River’s grace, but one seemed to be pressing his case more firmly than the others. Book wasn’t too concerned as long as all they did was dance. Frankly, he thought it was good that someone ‘normal’ was taking an interest in her. He spent a moment building a multi-tiered work of art that could barely be classified as a sandwich and placing it on an already well loaded plate. He’d been busy all day and hadn’t eaten.

Then River screamed.

The young man took her by the arm and seemed to be trying to comfort her and lead her away from the crowd. River sank to the ground, still screaming, tears streaming down her face. She shrank away as her suitor attempted to stand her up.

Book walked over, with his heavily laden plate in his right hand. “May I be of assistance?”

“Get lost, Grandpa.”

Book looked at the couple, lifted his sandwich from the plate, and whipped the heavy plate in a vicious backhand slash edgewise across the bridge of the man’s nose. Stunned, he fell to the floor.

Book looked down at the bleeding face. “I never married.”

He looked to River and offered her his now plateless hand. She looked at him, and words began to spill out of her mouth. It sounded crazy, but her eyes were flat, black pools of something fearful.

“Images, he had,
Images dark.
Small silver capsule
on the cab floor waiting.

“Driver bleeding,
Passengers screaming -
Big, bad crash
Blinding flash.

“Mind glows dim
Someone breaks in
Little silver capsule
A fallen star gleaming.

“Capsule taken
Blue hands unshaken.
Parents lives run out
Like falling sands.”

Book tries again to reach the sobbing girl. “Let’s go home, River.”

“I have no home,
Only a room that roams.”

“Well, we wouldn’t want it to roam without us, would we?” His voice is very soft. Her head tilts toward him, and her eyes focus on his face. It’s like she is seeing him for the first time. Her eyes shift to his extended hand. She takes it, and with that incredible dancer’s grace, unfolds from the floor to stand by him. He grabs a napkin from a nearby table and wipes her eyes. She acknowledges the kindness with a nod. Together they walked out of the party lights and faded into the darkness outside. The music resumes and the dancers shift into a new pattern. Nobody goes near the man on the floor.

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