She remembered the dreams.
Little bits of memories that had never really been hers, floating in her ears like wisps of smoke. The memories themselves had stopped coming to her, had abated since their trip to Miranda, but she remembered them. Images of men who breathed too deeply. Went to bed at night with something stirring in their lungs and in their blood, the men who turned to monsters in the darkest hours of the morning, and woke as Reavers, and burst from their homes and from their planet and then spread like a cancer to the skies.
It didn't happen all at once that they laid themselves down and began to die, out on Miranda, or in the worst of cases, that their humanity began to disappear beneath a growing sense of frenzied rage. It happened, in fact, very slowly. Took a while for the chemicals to react; cells to change. It disfigured the tissues of their brains in a gradual way, like a slow rot that began at the stem and spread up, around, flowering up into the hollows of their skulls with horrors and hatred and all the worst of humanity and more. She could quantify this in medical terms – the Pax was a tranquilizer, a smoother, a synthesized concoction of anxiolytics which were meant to affect the nervous system, triggered lethargy via non-lethal encephalitic swelling in the ideal scenario; and very occasionally, horrifically, triggered in its host a building of pressure so great within the skull, an inflammation of the brain so severe that only rage and aggression could take hold. And this was how Reavers were quantified. Their brains were compromised; a process that was not altogether alien to her.
And then there was poetry. She knew poetry. They were crestfallen; angels with their wings cut off. Shrapnel stapled to the wounds. Pushed over the edge. Dragged into the abyss. They were monsters and puppets and zombies, of a sort; and she knew what that was like, too, and it haunted her, sometimes.
It also happened very slowly for the Reavers that the chemicals began to die and the cells began to heal. The brain began to cool. It was a slow rot and a slow death. The hormones passed. The rage dissolved. The tissue still was damaged, stretched too far and then shrunk back down, but very slowly, and very quietly, their minds receded from the black.
River Tam no longer dreamed about the things she'd seen and never really seen out on Miranda, but as she turned to face the wall at night in the belly of sweet Serenity, she felt the skies begin to tremble like the waters of the ocean withdrawing from the shore; and her mind opened up, the way it always did when she really wished it wouldn't, because she always had been close to them and she felt it, just a whisper and a million miles away, but heard, nonetheless, as the Reavers returned to the worlds of men.
And the howls which had once brought horror to the skies tapered off into a low, tortured wailing.
Like space junk issued forth from the belly of the universe, their ships punched through the sky and fell back upon the earth of a dozen moons; some of them empty, already dead and filled up with the bodies of the Reavers who had run themselves through with knives or put bullets to their brains to quiet all those wicked memories, some of whom had died simply and unintentionally from a lack of any will to keep on living. A poetic return to the birth of Paxilon: they lost the will to fight.
And some had lived.
They lurched away from the ships. Writhed in the dirt. Felt as if they had been gone from the splendors of land for such a very long time, had been drifting in the black as if trapped in some vague and fuzzy nightmare, so long without soil beneath their feet, to a place where man was never meant to go; and fell upon the earth in thrashing heaps of ecstasy for having broken away from that horrible time of nightmares.
And they looked upon the waters and found monsters staring back at them. Bits of razor blades and nails peeking out between layers of scar tissue; layers and layers and layers. Burned. Disfigured. Grotesque. And they knew what these bodies were made for, what they were made of. How they had used those teeth for tearing. Had laid those eyes upon the horrors of the universe. Hands that had torn and bound and butchered. And they had heard. Had felt. Had caused.
There were blinkered memories and flashes of nightmares playing in the backs of their minds. Few could fully recall what had happened; they had been compromised. Somewhere in the swelling and the shrinking of their brains the consciousness and recollection of their actions had been lost. And yet those who were left with the vivid memories of their ordeal struggled to make sense of it. Their brains had never fully healed, and it was only through little windows of clarity, spats of lucid thought, that they could catch a glimpse of their deeds. But they understood. Understood that it had not simply been a nightmare, that it had happened, that they had done those things. And that knowledge stole away what little sanity they clung to.
Serenity touched down on a planet that was teeming with green and aglow with the warmth of a summer sun, which warranted some wandering. Supplies needed buying and parts needed picking. As was customary, Mal and Zoe went in one direction, Jayne disappeared into the seedier side of the town, and River found herself going in whatever direction Simon and Kaylee had wandered; but it wasn't long before she had been relegated to the fringes of the conversation. She didn't mind. Simon and Kaylee were bonding. She wanted them to be happy. And the planet was such a pretty place; near enough to the rim to lack the niceties of the core planets, but pleasantly under-populated and overgrown. Something about the forest called to her. Birds and bugs and ivy prickling up around the tree trunks. When she figured that no one was looking, she wandered quietly away, down a path between the trees, toward a little slope where she could hear the murmur of a creek between the brush.
She found it weeping along the bank of the creek, at a place where the sunlight was cut by the foliage of the trees dipping inward; where the sun hit the water and cast bright, glittering splotches of light along the ivy. She found it crouched across it with both hands clasped firm on the back of its neck. Two fingers missing; a whole patch of skin charred black and gleaming along its knuckles. It clung to itself and rocked very slowly, toward the creek and away from it, its eyes cast low between its feet as if afraid of its own reflection on the water.
There was a clutch of sparrows chirping idly amongst themselves in the overgrowth. It was a calm, quiet place where she found it, and for all of its disfigurements and its ability to crouch so low within the bush, unafraid of spiders and snakes and thorns – which she could see prickling up against its arms – she wondered if it was willing himself to simply disappear into the wild; waiting for the overgrowth to swallow it up. Like a dead thing. Like death itself.
She stepped lightly. Gracefulness was on her side, and it did not hear her coming.
She knew what a Reaver felt like; how it looked. She knew the inside of a Reaver's mind, was well acquainted with the terrible chill and fear of being in the presence of so much rage, and knew as she laid eyes upon it that she was looking at a Reaver; and yet there was something distinctly strange about it. The thing was broken. It was empty.
She moved within a yard of it, peering curiously, and it suddenly turned in her direction as if startled by her approach. Though she was prepared to fight it off, if need to, or to turn and run away from it, she was so taken aback by the sudden wave of sadness and terror that erupted from the creature that she swayed on her feet, lilting toward it, and fell to her knees beside it.
Something clicked in her mind and she became suddenly aware of something strange writhing within it, and she knew; knew that it was not a Reaver. Something strange about it. Something oddly human. It was a Reaver that had awoken; a Reaver coming up from beneath the spell of Paxilon. Broken and deranged.
"Wormwood," she mused. "Devils dropping from the sky. You're poisonous things. You've poisoned the waters, but you didn't mean to. It happened when you weren't looking."
The man could not meet her eyes, which seemed to her a very reasonable thing. She could feel the pain coming off of him; it washed over her like a curtain of rain, making her shiver, dragging goose-bumps along her arms. It seemed reasonable that he couldn't look at her because he was no longer righteous; no longer human. But he did not understand that she'd been to the depths before, too, that she had lost something of her humanity to the whim of the Alliance, and that it made them a little bit the same.
His head was full of memories that did not belong to him.
She pressed her palm against his wrist. He almost jerked away from her touch, but she held him steadfast.
"We're toys," she said. "They took us away from ourselves. Made us do bad things. But we're better now." And she smiled, and could tell from the way that he slumped that he knew she was smiling because the sound of it was in her voice. Maybe if she took away from him this feeling of loneliness, he could forget. Reason could be blinkered by hope and logic could be humanized. Simon had shown her that.
She peered further into the creature, probing. "Your name was Lee," she said. "You were a good man. Worked with your hands, made an honest living, just wanted a wife and a home and a family to raise. Good man. Still are. Deep inside. Beneath all the scar tissue."
He trembled beneath her, and she knew that he really was lost, and she wished that she didn't know it.
The Reaver-turned-man tilted his head and she caught him peering up at her from beneath his heavy brow. His right eye was sunken in, shriveled and black; the other deep and hard and red. But the rage was not there. This was a broken, tortured human being. She could see the shadows of his horrors passing over his eyes and had to stifle the sudden urge to pull away from him. His lips moved as if he wished to speak, but could not make the words appear. She noticed for the first time that his lower lip was half missing, that it had been torn off and the flesh had poorly healed. She wondered if he could speak. She wondered if he remembered language and all the connections made possible by simple speech, movements of tongue and lips and faces. He had been lost in a world of wailing and she wondered if he remembered the world of words. If his mind was full of images. Unconnected. Broken and meaningless.
And then with a little jolt she felt her mind split open and the sound of his voice came into her, low and rugged and broken: it was still alive and it fought back, he said. Open up to see what's inside. There flashed an image of a woman wailing, and tearing with her hands at something above her, clawing at its face, and one of her hooked fingers going into the Reaver's eye socket and tearing at the flesh there, and the Reaver grasping her hand and forcing it in further, liking the way that it hurt, liking the horror on her face and the terrible tremors which rocked through her as she lay writhing beneath him, the darkness of some great ship swallowing them up beneath a din of piercing screams. And River lurched back into her mind and away from it, and didn't want to be near this haunted thing, knowing what it had done and what had been done to it, but refused to release the Reaver's hand. He had begun to make a noise in the back of his throat – a tight, hollow wheezing. He remembered; she remembered with him. And for a moment there was flash of images between them – syringes and straps and skulls and skin stretched taut and thin over the bare bones of the corpses on Miranda, eyes that peered out from the heads of dead things and pierced the layers of their minds – and then they fell away, and the sounds of the sparrows in the bush came back to them. River tried to breathe, her whole body trembling. The Reaver suddenly began to weep. His ragged shoulders heaved and his head fell low across his chest. He looked so much like an animal, she thought, and the sound of his weeping was so human that it brought tears to her eyes.
She startled at the sound of her name and then realized how strange it was to be startled by something. Then, turning, she could see Simon hurtling toward them from the tangled slope. In a single breath he was nearly on top of them.
"River," he breathed, and grabbed her suddenly by the shoulders and yanked her back away from the Reaver. She swayed on her feet, her grip on the Reaver's hand breaking, and watched as the crumpled man looked up at them – fully, for the first time – in wide-eyed terror.
"Simon, no," she said, but he was already putting distance between them and the Reaver. One hand going to his hip as if groping for a weapon, though they both knew that he didn't carry a gun. "Simon!" she yelled. She dug her heels into the soil and pivoted to face him. He seemed momentarily unfazed by her stubbornness and strategically put himself between her and the Reaver. She noticed that there were blackberry brambles clinging to his clothes from where he had forced himself through the overgrowth to get to her. There was a pang of guilt.
"Simon, he won't hurt us!"
He looked at her as if she were crazy. She thought that, too, was a very reasonable move on his part.
"River, it's…" he looked frantically from her to the Reaver, who had not moved. His brow furrowed as he looked at it – Simon had noticed that the Reaver wasn't moving, and that was probably strange to him because Reavers were not known to stay still for very long.
Unless they were dead.
The sparrows had stopped chirping.
"What's it doing?" he asked, sounding stricken. A little curious.
"He was weeping."
"Weeping?" Simon glanced at her and then away again. "It's a Reaver, they don't- "
"That's not a Reaver, Simon. It's a man. Human man. He used to be a Reaver, but he woke up. He's weeping."
"He…woke up?" Simon repeated.
"Like I did."
This time he looked at her fully. She sensed that he was only half-listening to her. He shook his head a little and looked her over.
"Did it hurt you?"
"No," she said, and gave him a pointed look. She wondered if he'd already forgotten how well she had fared during her last bout with Reavers.
He looked back at the Reaver again. It had moved further back into the bush as if trying to make itself invisible.
"He's hurt, Simon," she said, "you need to help him."
He seemed to consider for a moment, though she guessed that he wouldn't be able to heal the Reaver's wounds even if he'd wanted to; it was beyond repair. He had managed to fix her when he had found her broken, but he had cared for her, and that had helped; there was no one to care for a Reaver. Especially not someone who had actually met a Reaver before. They didn't exactly leave a good impression.
Simon turned back to her suddenly and began urging her back up the slope.
"Come on, we need to get back to the ship."
"We can't leave him," she said. "He's hurt."
"He's a Reaver."
"Not anymore, Simon," she screeched, tears burning at her eyes. She was overwhelmed by the need to explain this to him, to make him understand. The Reaver was in agony. She could feel it. The way she had felt the pain of the Reavers' victims as they had passed the derelict, those years ago, and it made very little difference in her mind that this creature may have once caused such pain, because it had been trapped inside itself. Paxilon had destroyed this man. Had driven it to savagery. And then here it was, free again, and left with the pain and the horrors of its past.
She needed Simon to understand that this man was a victim in need of their help. What help they could give she dared not guess; she wasn't a doctor. Healing was not within her means.
That was Simon's expertise, and he had to understand. They had to do something.
"The monster is gone, Simon," she said. "He's a man again, and he wants to forget but he can't. There are ghosts screaming in his head and he wants to undo everything and go back, make it better, but he can't and it hurts." She had begun to cry. Simon moved as if to comfort her, the way he always did, but she lurched away from him and shook her head.
"Please, Simon. Please, please don't leave him to suffer."
"There's nothing I can do for it. If it's…if he remembers…" His face twisted for a moment as he seemed to consider that possibility, that a person could be forced to commit such evils and then be forced to live with it, before he shook his head very slowly and met her eyes. "There's no coming back from that, River. I can't help him."
She hiccupped, hugging herself and trying to stop the tears, but the emotion was beyond her. She finally relented as he gently pulled her away from the creek.
They wove their way back through the bushes, around the trees, past little patches of flowers and grass and sun-splotched ivy, sparrows and dragonflies darting in amongst the brambles; and she silently wept the whole time as they walked. Her mind stayed behind at the creek, with the Reaver, and she could feel its sorrow and its two-fold relief and desperation as they left it alone with itself. It was so ashamed of itself. And so very alone.
Simon was visibly pained by her grief, but he didn't know how to help her. He couldn't even understand why she was hurt, or what they had seen at the creek, but held her hand and tried to comfort her the way he always did. "It'll be okay," he said, "everything will be okay." And she thought he was a pretty bad liar.
Finally, at the edge of the wood, the glint of Serenity's hull came into view. The crew was already assembled at the cargo bay doors, and Mal turned toward them as they approached. Thinly veiled concern – and a bit of exasperation – registered on his face as he caught sight of them, River crying and Simon covered in thorns, trying to comfort her.
"You run into trouble, Doc?"
Everyone turned to look at them. Kaylee poked her head out from the cargo bay. "You found her," she breathed, glancing at River; and then frowned at their appearance, looking blatantly worried.
There was a pause as Simon attempted to articulate some kind of answer. At length, he sighed, "there was a Reaver in the forest."
Everybody froze. And then River suddenly shoved Simon away from her.
"He wasn't a Reaver!" she shouted. "He was a man! I told you!"
Mal shot a confused look at Simon, who shook his head.
"It looked like a Reaver, but it was acting…strangely. It was…well, River seems to think that it was weeping."
Kaylee crossed her arms over her chest. "Weeping? That's strange."
"Reavers don't weep," Mal said.
River knew it was very important that she make herself understood and took a moment to configure the most concise way of explaining this. "He's not a Reaver anymore," she said. "The chemicals wore off. He doesn't want to hurt anyone now, but he remembers it, and he's broken."
There was a deep, troubled pause as everyone considered the possibility she was proposing. Simon stared down at his feet. Kaylee seemed stricken. For the first time in a long time, she couldn't see through Mal's expression and wondered what was happening inside his head, if he believed her, if he felt the same horror that she felt over the thought of what it would be like to live as a Reaver, without conscious and without mercy, and then to awaken one day to find the soul returned, the mind haunted by memories of unspeakable evils. She wanted him to understand this. Something very important had changed; the Reaver at the creek had changed it. They had all gotten themselves deeply involved with the events on Miranda, with the making of Reavers, and they could not ignore the implications of what she was proposing. This had changed their lives. She peered over Mal's shoulder and caught sight of Zoe looking thoughtfully lost in herself and she pressed her hand against her gun and stared into the forest, and as the face of Hoban Washburne flashed inside her head, River thought, again, how the reality of the Reavers had changed them all in a deep and irreparable way.
Finally, Mal stepped away from the cargo bay and motioned to Simon as he went.
"Take your sis into the ship, Doc. We've just got back with some supplies 'n Kaylee could use your help setting up."
"I'll take care o' this, Doc. No worries. Zoe?"
Zoe came back to herself with a sharp nod and moved to follow the captain.
"What're you gonna do?" Kaylee asked, still standing lost and concerned in the threshold. She gripped the side of the bay and glanced furtively between Simon and Mal, the latter of whom shook his head at her briefly as if urging her not to ask. River thought that was a little strange – Kaylee had killed Reavers before – and felt a twinge of relief, thinking that maybe this meant Mal understood: he was not going to confront a Reaver, he was going to confront a man.
River sniffled and allowed Simon to lead her toward the ship. They wound through the cargo bay and Kaylee spoke, easing Simon back into normalcy as they went through the supplies she had picked up in town. River kept an idle count of the goods on her mental ledger, purely out of habit: new moving parts for the engine. Crates of canned meat and powdered food in little tinfoil packets. Medical supplies, none of them particularly expensive or fancy, but nice enough and thoughtful enough that they lit a smile on Simon's face. There were tools and ammunition. A list of potential buyers. It had been a good outing, she thought. Everyone had been busy. Everyone had brought something back to the ship.
Jayne eventually found his way in, having ambled in late from his own excursions – most of them probably illicit, she supposed, but it seemed everything they did as a crew was illicit anyway – and as everyone moved and tried to ignore the obvious interruption of the day, trying not to think about Reavers or Reavers with souls, River stretched her mind as far as it would go, into the trees, into the ivy, beyond the sparrows and the rays of fading evening light in the overgrowth, to the creek where the man had swaddled himself in thorns; and she felt him tremble as two figures approached. She closed her eyes and hummed. Felt Simon shoot a worried look in her direction and felt him look away again, distracted by Kaylee or the supplies or some uncreatively cynical comment from Jayne. Something clicked in her mind. Something recoiled. She quietly excused herself.
When they returned from the creek, River was sitting on the cargo ramp, her arms wrapped around her knees. Zoe acknowledged her briefly and then stoically disappeared up the ramp. River felt a tremble as she went, sensed a wave of inner turmoil and allowed a moment of empathy. Mal watched her go. He stood at the foot of the ramp, covering River with his shadow, and after a long moment he turned to regard her with a weary look. The trees along the horizon had grown dark with the setting of the sun, clotting the backdrop far behind him, and she cast her gaze as far as it would go, to the bushes and the brambles, before looking up at the captain.
"He's dead," River said.
"He wasn't a Reaver when you killed him," she added.
"And how d'you figure that?" he asked. She thought it sounded like he already knew the answer; he was testing her.
She tilted her head, his shadow still covering her. "Reavers don't weep."
He studied her carefully, and finally crossed his arms over his chest.
"It didn't fight. Looked kinda lost, like it was scared of us. Reavers aren't scared of any damn thing. They court death, can't get enough of it. The way they cut on themselves…" he trailed off.
"Wasn't a Reaver," she reiterated.
"You gonna tell me what it was?"
"Was a man. A piece of a man."
"Never seen one like that," he commented. Then, after a moment, and under his breath as if fearing the answer, asked, "Are there more?"
She tipped her head to the right, and then to the left, considering. "I don't know," she answered, honestly, "I don't actually know everything, you know."
"You'll tell me if there's more of them. Like that one."
"If I can see them."
"Don't want you goin' out there lookin' for 'em, you understand? You'll give your brother a heart attack doing that. 'n we need him." His expression softened. "Can't spare to lose either one of you."
She nodded and he moved to go back up into the ship.
"You put a bullet to him," she said, and he paused. "You put him down. You'll do that again if I see more of them? More of them like that one?"
He turned toward her. "I see anything looks like a Reaver, 'n it's close enough to shoot, I'll shoot. Don't matter what it's like."
She turned to look back at the horizon. The sun had nearly disappeared beyond the treeline, and the sky had gone terribly dark. "Did you bury him?" she asked.
He didn't answer.
"C'mon, Albatross. Time to head out."
He went up the ramp and after a moment, she followed.