Dreams are the forebrain's interpretation of random signals from the hindbrain.
Or, dreams are bubbles of subconsciousness, rising into the open air of sleep. Pop! But River's sleep is crowded now, all the time, with numbers like scalpels. No room for bubbles here.
Or, dreams are a tiny girl with an accent from Earth That Was who comes visiting when it's dark except for the brilliant lines of light around the blackened edges of the observation window and River is bound in her bed.
River thinks maybe the girl is another trick. The doctors like tricks. They tell her tricks unlock doors in her mind. Some doors shouldn't be opened, she thinks, but before she can tell the doctors, they're gone.
One night, River asks, "Are you a spy?" River rarely needs to ask questions anymore. The universe is certain: infinite and infinitely complex, but determined. But this girl is different.
The girl smiles. "I don't think so. Are you?"
River rolls her eyes. "No."
"Did they hurt you today?"
"They slash at retinas to let the light in," River says. "They don't understand about the angle of incidence."
The girl nods. "Lots of grownups don't," she says.
"Can't you do anything about these doctors?" the girl asks one night. She calls herself Matilda, but this is too close to another name River doesn't dare remember but can't forget if she tries. "They're hurting you. They should be punished."
"I could kill them," River says. Not yet. She's only a dull weapon and not yet balanced. But soon the blade could turn and slice. Soon.
The girl sits very quietly for a long time. "I think that might be too much."
River shrugs. They're just quantum particles. It doesn't matter to her how they're arranged.
"I've been reading about Mr. Einstein," says the girl. "I don't understand his relativity theory quite, but it's very interesting, isn't it?"
They don't talk about killing again. That time.
Simon comes and takes River and hides her on a ship with eight (then seven) particular arrangements of particles, and for a long time River doesn't see the girl. When she finally does, one night when the only sounds are the structural hum of Serenity's engines and the creaking of her hull, the girl says, "I can move things with my eyeballs!"
"I was in class, and I tipped over some water right on the Headmistress and oh she was angry!"
"Your eyeballs are not levers," River says.
"It was heat energy, not mechanical," the girl says. "They heated up. It felt like they were burning--"
"Low flammability," says River.
The girl waits, composed, one eyebrow fractionally arched. Finally she says, "You interrupted. That's rude."
"Eyeballs don't combust. They don't move things, either," says River.
"Mine do," says the girl. She looked down at her hands, folded in her lap. "I thought you'd believe me."
"The physics denies the claim."
"I bet yours could, too. You can read people's thoughts, and even I can't do that."
"You're silly," says River.
The girl slumps, and then she leaves.
River is sorry. Etiquette varies with culture, but insult is rude in most of them. She should have listened and waited for the girl to stop being silly. River has plenty of practice; it isn't very often now that she tells Simon or the captain or Jayne how stupid they are.
Only, she thought the girl wasn't silly. But now she's telling River baby stories they both know aren't true, and River is sorriest about that. She thought the girl understood.
The hands of blue are closing in; five hundred thousand cubic AU's of space is not nearly enough to hide in. Book has taken his scary hair away, and Inara all her silk robes and incense. The captain's face is often tight and hard and he's angrier than he used to be. Kaylee fidgets, always when Simon is near and often when she's alone, and River knows the theory behind that but in practice it just means that Kaylee is unhappy.
The girl comes.
"Miranda," River says, and at the word the memories come rushing in, memories not hers leached colorless by calculation and uncaring, but even in tones of gray the screams are horrible, animal.
"Matilda," the girl says. She kneels by River, who is backed hard against the wall now. The girl reaches out a hand, but doesn't touch, and River heaves the door shut on all the screams and gleaming blood. It might be weeks before they push it open again.
Or it might be tomorrow.
"I've been thinking about the doctors, and what you said you could do," the girl says.
"I can," says River. She's certain now as she wasn't then; her experiment with firearms has demonstrated that death is simply a particular calculation of angles and relative velocities. She can apply the principle to other weaponry when she needs to. "But medicine isn't relevent anymore."
The girl has hunched beside her, wrapping her arms around her folded knees. "So there isn't anyone you need to kill," she says, and River hears concession in the slight pause before kill.
"There will be," River says. "They're coming for me. Grubby-handed minions of a standard O-class sun."
"You won't like it very much," says the girl. "Killing people."
Which may or may not be true. "It was what I was made to do," she says, which is.
Book and his evil hair are dead. Soon the hands that strangled him will try to strangle her.
"I did it," the girl says. "With my eyeballs."
"Go away," says River. "I'm trying to sleep." Just the same, she doesn't really mind seeing the girl; the door is harder to shut now, and Reavers keep popping out at her and yelling "Boo!" which scares her. Then they chew off her toes, one by one, which is an inefficient method of cannibalism.
"I made Miss Trunchbull go away," says the girl. "I pretended I was a ghost -- or the chalk was a ghost, really--"
"It's the right color," River says.
"You interrupted," says the girl, primly.
River considers a moment, and then thinks she'd rather the girl didn't go away. "I'm sorry."
The girl smiles -- not Simon's polite you're-forgiven-of-course smile, but Kaylee's teeth-gleaming it's-already-forgotten grin. "So I made it write on the chalkboard..."
And it's a silly story, like River knew it would be, but she doesn't mind because the ending is happy, and right now the artificiality of narrative is soothing. Miss Honey reminds River of her first teacher at School, before they began drilling River's skull with lollipop sticks.
"You could do it, you know," the girl says. "Lift things. Maybe it's not in your eyeballs. Maybe it's somewhere else."
"It's in my brain," River says. "Everything that matters. I can kill people with my brain." The rest of it, aiming and pulling the trigger and all the miniscule physical motions that come after the calculations, those are just trivia. "I can... remember."
Then she spends several minutes screaming at the Reavers until they turn, white-eyed and frightened, and close the door behind them.
When they've gone, the girl's still there. "I'm sorry," she says.
"It doesn't matter," River says. Sympathy is worth what it costs, her father said.
"Yes, it does," says the girl, prim again, and River knows that the girl knows what she meant. River knows, too, that it's why she bothers to keep talking to her. When River talks plain, the girl understands. It's more than can be said for anyone on the ship, except maybe for the ship itself; River hasn't reached a conclusion about that yet.
It has nothing to do with eyeballs; that, she's certain of. She watches the captain toss weapons to Zoe. She watches Jayne pulley cargo up. She asks Wash about the theory of flight.
The sun is about to flare, scorching them all. Inhumanity claws ever bloodier in her dreams.
Lifting things is something else to think about.
River lifted. She lifted and dropped and swung and smashed, and when it was done the human bodies with animal brains were flung, red and seeping, at her feet.
Simon embraced her, and then Kaylee did, then Inara, not even minding how the oxidized hemoglobin trickled from her dress. The captain clapped her on the shoulder.
And now she's clean, at least on the outside, and safe, except from the snapping jaws of grief for Book and for Wash for the people all those inhuman things had once been. She lies in the dark, alone -- Simon is away, maybe not bungling the final result of his convoluted mating ritual.
"I was right," River says. "I'm good at killing things."
The girl sits on her bed, hands clasped. "I was right, too."
River shrugs. "It was inevitable. A blade cuts. A gun fires."
"You should try it," the girl says. "Lifting things."
And there's an instant -- a moment's recognition -- when the girl's make-believe makes sense, because knowing that the blue hands and bloodied claws are stilled is a kind of lifting, a release from gravity.
And then River remembers who else's hands are stilled, and she curls away from the girl. She's not interested anymore. River waits, breath even, the way they taught at School. The girl never makes any noise, has no presence, but finally River dares a glance and sees the girl is gone.
The last time River sees the girl, River is awake, sitting on her bed and listening to Serenity. Matilda stands silent in the doorway and waits until River slips out of the bunk and follows her, around and up the stairs and along the grate, parallel to Serenity's spine. On the bridge Matilda stands by copilot's chair. River slides into it.
Matilda doesn't touch -- she's never touched anything here, and River pities her that. Instead Matilda stands by the console, hand floating just above the yoke. River lets her fingers fall on it, testing the resistance.
"You should try it," Matilda says again. "Lifting things." And then she's gone.
In a little while that captain comes and sits in Wash's seat: time to go. That's when River tries it. It isn't with her eyeballs or even with just her brain, but Serenity rises just the same. While the captain gives soothing, unlikely homilies about ships and love, it comes to River that what she was made to do and what she can do are different, and not entirely prescribed by physics.