"To be mad is to feel with excruciating intensity the sadness and joy of a time which has not arrived or has already arrived."
~Mark Helprin, from Winter's Tale.
Time rotates in a perfect dance. It is the turning of the worlds in a perfect spin. It marks its path with chalk and it writes upon the girl. If the universe is expanding at a rate of 74.3 kilometers per second per megaparsec, then it is understood that correlation is to be found in the girl who is water. Time passes. The girl expands. She grows. This growth is a gradual increase. It is the development of an organism over time; from a seed to full maturity. So, it was almost inevitable that 4.1 years after the broadcast of the Miranda wave, River Tam was alone in the bridge of a ship called Serenity, manning the helm.
Piloting was a pure endeavour, creative and logical at once, which was why River loved it so, especially this late at night when most of the crew were asleep. It was her favourite time to fly, when the lights were dimmed, the air was quiet and still, and it was just her and Serenity, though there was a whisper here or there about the ship. A soft, distant sound told her someone was moving about in the cargo bay. Based on past experience, she predicted it was probably Mal at this late hour. Still, it was almost like being alone. Checking the controls confidently, comfortable in her task, River's fingers danced across the worn knobs and switches, asking Serenity to dance with her. Serenity, always gracious, responded to her request, gently rolling and shifting her weight in a perfect arabesque. There is symmetry in all things, always a cause and effect to be found, and so River smiled with contentment. She was distracted, however, as movement flickered in her peripheral vision.
Wash was in his chair again. Hawaiian shirt, smiling eyes, messy hair. Plastic dinosaur replicas, not to scale, imbued with life through imagination and falsetto ventriloquism. He was not Actual Wash. Actual Wash was deceased, therefore logic suggested the only alternative. This was Echo Wash. Apparitions are fictitious; children's stories and badly made holovids. Observable evidence is unprovable and untrustworthy. Echo Wash was just that: an echo. The residue of a thought, of a psyche that inhabited a space for a long time. He was perfume in the air, or a footprint in the earth. Something this way has passed. Quantifiable and causal.
He was to be seen all over the ship, but most often he was in here or in the bunk he had shared with Zoe, though in there he was usually doing an ephemeral repeat of very carnal things, slowed and blurred about the edges. Insubstantial and sharp. A muted passion, a calmed sea. Something of him remained embedded in Zoe's skin as well, like shadow puppets and well-thumbed pages. Tiny particles of an atom. Electrons in orbit. Stains are memories barring cognitive impairment.
River once found it difficult to tell the difference between the Echoes and what is present. Still did sometimes, because everything is Real but only some things are Now. Echoes even have thoughts sometimes, fixated and fractured usually, but thoughts nonetheless. Added to this were moments of heralding, pieces of things, people and happenings that haven't quite occurred just yet, but which are, of course, subject to the mathematical laws of probability. Precognition and equations dancing on a see-saw. Though in a universe of variables nothing is truly certain until it is past tense. Grammar requires it. Will have happened as opposed to might have been, though past participles are often emotional in content; especially with regards to the should have been. This was a fact of which everyone within Serenity was intimately well aware, and at the thought River's eyes flickered back over to Echo Wash. He turned towards the door and smiled. His mouth moved as he spoke to someone who was there, but was not there Now.
Echo Wash was why River still used the co-pilot's chair despite now being Serenity's full-time driver, on her good days at least. He did not scare her. Well, only on the days when he was dying over and over, pinned to that chair through the heart. But his emotions had never been violent, and so usually she found his presence sunny, comforting and familiar. He lingered, and so was not all gone yet. That was important. It was good. However, she didn't like it when she sat in his chair and she shared the same space as him. It was an intimacy that had never, and did not, belong to them, and it felt invasive besides. Invasive; as in, an adjective, tending to spread prolifically and undesirably. Humour and love to the power of ten, expanding at an exponential rate inside her, but not of her. It was... all manner of disturbing, as Mal might say.
As if the thought had conjured him, he entered the cockpit at that moment with his usual swagger, proving her earlier hypothesis correct. Mal, fingers hooked about his belt, eyes looking to the black. That was always the thing he saw first in this room. The stars. The small dots of bright in an unending dark field, even though hope died when God did; in a cold, dirty cage while the woman screamed. All that was left behind in his sky were possibilities, and Mal could handle those like his favourite six-shooter. River understood possibilities. They were everything.
"Figure we'll be needin' to head over ta Persephone." He said, eyes flicking to her at last, voice a dry drawl. "Gotta try and rustle up some cashy money afore we get desperate for food."
Food. Sustenance. An image flickered through River's consciousness, running free and unfettered about her amygdala. Hunger. Apples and flesh. She gripped the throttle so tight it cut into her fingers. Memories became buoyant and rose to the surface. She could not drown them, and they became spectres that danced for her. Reavers. All hate and pain. Red rage because they couldn't fall down. Eat, rape, kill, hopefully not in that order. Monsters under the bed, in a ship under a star. Echoes that aren't dead. Even when she cut them down, still they wouldn't die. Flesh ended, but immortality awaited. All that pain had to go somewhere.
"Cannibal." She said, involuntarily. "Anthropophagite. A person who eats the flesh of other human beings. An animal that feeds on the flesh of others of its kind."
She looked over to where Mal was standing, embarrassed, but saw that he was gone. Was this happening? Was this Now? She leaned over and tasted the air where he had stood with her fingers, and then realised he had never been there at all, or at least, not yet. Not actual Mal, or even Echo Mal. No, it had been Probable Mal. Possible Mal, future imperfect. It was easier to tell with Mal than most, despite the fact that Echoes and Probabilities could always deceive her sensory organs. Neurons transmit electrochemical signals and all becomes Real. Mal's probabilities were more insubstantial than most though, blurred about the edges and ripped in the corners, but sometimes he could fool her; a product of his very unpredictable nature. He often defied estimation but not always, and not in this circumstance. Not five minutes later, Mal followed his possibility into the cockpit. By that time River had hidden her upset well enough, and had already started to lay in the course to Persephone. With a crooked smile and a shake of his head, he called her a witch and left again.