the ghosts of the tribe
Crouch in the nights beside the ghost of a fire, they try to
remember the sunlight.
Robinson Jeffers, “Apology for Bad Dreams”
It has been three months since Miranda, and River is still spinning. One by one, the others find some sort of equilibrium—Mal, burning with righteousness, Zoe, carved in marble. But River’s mind is full of splinters, and if the others (Simon) think her well, it is because they do not think of her much at all. (There is no longer a price on her head.)
It has been this way since the Academy, and in some ways the revelations of Miranda have only made it worse. River sits beside Mal on the bridge and gazes into the black, wondering if she was ever a (singularity) unified consciousness, or if this shatterpoint in her mind is why the Alliance wanted her in the first place.
She considers the story they inhabit, in relation to theories of classical drama set down by the ancient scholars of Earth-that-was. (There is little for a pilot to do, once the ship breaks orbit and the course is set.) Exposition, conflict, climax, and denouement: a period of reflection in which the moral is extracted.
Before Miranda, they had a purpose; each of them, a specific function. Mal’s to run, the crew’s to follow. Simon’s to mend River, River’s to grasp through the darkness for his hand.
Now Wash is dead, and the light has gone out of Zoe’s eyes. And it’s (her fault) her job to take his place, though she understands that she is tolerated, rather than wanted.
“Gotta give her time,” Wash tells River, the first time Zoe walks off the bridge, unable to look at her. “She’ll warm up to you.”
If Wash had not died, River would not be sitting in the pilot’s seat. If he had lived, she never would have come to know him, to learn that his love for Serenity was greater than Zoe’s, greater than anyone’s, maybe, except for Mal’s. (River does not love Serenity, but that is because she knows too many of her secrets.)
That is why she does not tell anyone about the recordings. At first she is afraid that Zoe will not forgive her for being the one to find them—and then that, seeing them, Zoe will unravel. Eventually, River thinks, she will give them to Mal, and let him decide what to do with them. But for now, this is a piece of Wash that River is keeping to herself.
The recordings were never meant for Zoe, anyway.
“Welcome, heir to my throne,” says Wash, looming large in the frame of the capture. “If you’re watching this, I’m either dead, or fired, although I’m fairly certain that Mal would shoot me before he’d let me go, so I’m betting on dead.” He leans forward. “If you were at the funeral, let me just say for the record that the ugly brown suit was none of my doing.”
She talks less now to the rest of the crew than she did before Miranda, and this is partly because she is able to make herself understood with fewer words. But it’s also because the way they look at her now isn’t so different from the way they looked at her before. Not so different as it ought to be, if she’s really doing as well as everyone likes to say she is.
River wants to be well. To repay their sacrifice (it was everyone’s sacrifice) with wholeness. But it is harder to be still now than it has ever been.
They carried more than truth away with them from Miranda.
She had heard screaming there, and underneath it a massive, shattering silence. The silence, they left behind them when they returned to Serenity, but River has not stopped hearing the screams since.
She does not blame the dead. They are more lost than River has ever been. But the company of ghosts is a lonely thing, and there is not much for a pilot to do in the black.
“How you holdin’ up there, tiny?” says Mal, entering the bridge from behind her. He speaks to her whenever he sees her, but he rarely (meets her eyes) waits for her to reply.
“He likes you, sweetpea,” says Wash, and there is a whisper of cold air where he pats her hand. “He’s just not so much with the interpersonal communication skills these days. Or, you know, ever.”
“Has Zoe picked out a name for the baby yet?” she says.
Mal grows still, and for a moment she is afraid that she has gotten it wrong, that this is yet another thing she has taken away from Zoe. But a moment later he gives a low chuckle.
“Is there anything happens around here you don’t know about?” he says.
She cannot think how to answer without speaking of the dead, so she doesn’t try.
“My name, as you may have heard, is Hoban Washburne, and I felt we should meet,” says Wash from the capture recording, “because this sweet little bucket of bolts is more than just a ship to me. She is also a flying craft, and even, in her more tender moments, a vessel.” He blinks. “She doesn’t, uh, have a lot of those lately. Although the reciprocal...alternate...gadget thing has hopefully been replaced by the time you see this. Unless, of course, it never got replaced and the engine failed, in which case we probably had a crash landing or simply drifted through space until we all froze to death, and that’s why I’m dead and you’re watching this. Um, would it actually be possible for my past self to jinx my future self?”
River has many secrets, but this one is the worst of all: there would be no place for her on Serenity if Wash had lived. She alone of all the crew would have been without a function. Wash would have had Zoe, and Zoe’s child. He would have had no reason to become her friend.
Wash has left two things behind him: Zoe is carrying one of them, and River has the other, although that is just an accident. Wash had no way of knowing that River would take his place at this console—his smiles and whispered confidences make her feel like she belongs in this seat, in this crew, but the acceptance is an illusion, and the warmth is impersonal.
He is the brightest thing in her life right now, but that is no one’s fault (but hers.)
“The Alliance isn’t hunting you any more,” says Wash, stealing from her mind thoughts she has never allowed herself to speak. “You could go home, couldn’t you? See your parents.”
What Wash doesn’t say (it’s a thought she hides so deeply not even the ghosts can hear it) is that, in the month since their bounties have been canceled, she has been waiting for Simon to suggest this, for Simon to calm her uncertainties and persuade her (they made a mistake, mei-mei, it doesn’t mean they don’t love you) to come home. But he has said nothing, and to River, this says everything.
“Only real family a man’s got in this verse,” Mal had said, the day they laid Wash to rest, “is the one he gathers for himself.” River can still hear how he fought to keep the trembling from his voice.
But it is Zoe, walking like a goddess in her long white dress, that River remembers. And though she does not want to make the comparison, she finds herself thinking of her mother, of her fine silk gowns and dainty sun parasols, and her dull, painted eyes. It was her mother who had been happiest when the Academy had recruited River, a hint of relief in her face when she realized that visits home were not permitted during the academic year.
The truth now is that River belongs to Serenity, and its crew is the nearest thing she has to family. This is why, only a few days after she discovers the captures of Wash, she knocks on the door of Zoe’s cabin and enters to find Zoe sitting on the edge of her bed, hands on her knees, perfectly still and looking at nothing.
She looks up at River, the dead expression in her eyes turning, briefly, into confusion. But River doesn’t want to talk and she doesn’t want to explain herself, so before Zoe can say anything she hits the play button on the reader and thrusts it into Zoe’s hands.
“I imagine you’re wondering what the point of this recording is,” it begins, and River tries not to watch as the mute bewilderment on Zoe’s face gives way to frozen blankness. “You’re probably saying, ‘Wash, old buddy, you’re dead-and-or-fired! What do you care about what happens to Serenity, now that she has become—your grave?’ Sorry, private joke.”
River wants to leave. She starts to begin edging toward the door, but then she feels the whisper of cold air at her side, and a voice in her ear that says, “Wait. Please.”
The capture continues. “The first and most important reason for this recording is—boredom. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that there’s not much for a pilot to do out in the black.
“The other reason is a little hokey, but as I am probably dead and beyond embarrassment, I’ll say it anyway, because you need to know it. Serenity’s got several peccadilloes of the crazy-making variety, but she’ll be good to you if you let her. She’ll be a home, a hide-out, or whatever you need her to be. Just give her a chance.”
The room fills with a sudden, startling silence, and River realizes that Zoe has turned the reader off. Without quite meaning to, River tries to meet her eyes, and when she cannot find them she takes two noiseless steps across the room and sits beside her on the bed.
After a moment, River breathes deeply. The room spins before her eyes, but she swallows and says, “I like Susannah, for a girl. And Li-Mei. But I don’t like any boy’s names. They’re all hard and have sharp corners.”
The spinning worsens, so River shuts her eyes and waits for Zoe to hurt her somehow—with hands or words, or more silence. So she doesn’t see the tears in Zoe’s eyes, or see her arms, reaching out. But she feels them against her cheek and around her shoulders, and, for a moment, River relaxes into the strength of those arms, feeling the ‘verse around her grow slow and still, and herself stilling with it.