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Cover by ultra_fic                                          Cover by minutia_r

 

 

Test RT-1 initiated. Establishing quantum frequency for comparison. Sequence will begin in 5…4…3…2 ...

Running. River is running.

Why is she running?

She is running through a forest.

Temperate deciduous forest. Typical of many terraformed planets. Unlikely to be a Core planet.

Dead leaves crackle beneath her bare feet as she crashes through the underbrush. She raises her arms to protect her face. The branches leave long, stinging welts.

Why is she running? Where is she running? Stop.

She runs, changing direction randomly, avoiding the easiest paths among the trees.

Stop running. Stop running. Stop. Stop. Stop!

She slows and stops. There is a dense cluster of bushes in front of her – variant strain of Xanthium strumarium. She crawls in among the branches. Burrs catch in her hair and her dress. Her heartbeat is loud in her ears; her breath comes in harsh little gasps.

Be still. Listen. What does she hear?

The forest is quiet but for the wind in the leaves. No birds singing. No rustling of small animals.

She was loud in her fright, loud in her flight. Scared them away.

Weak light filters through the branches. It is early morning, or nearing sunset.

Can she quantify the quality of light and determine whether it is post-dawn or pre-dusk if she does not know where she is or how she got here?

Distant shouts reach her ears.

Men. Men coming. Coming for her.

She crouches, poised to run.

Stay. Be still. The cats will not find the quiet little mouse.

~why i always gotta be the one chasin’ ‘em down when they run?~

She stiffens. “Can’t let him get me,” she whispers.

Why does she fear him?

~why i don’t never get ta have fun wit’ any a them girls? i’m the one what catches ‘em. I want my turn.~

She scrambles backward, breaking through a spot where the bramble is thinnest. She ignores the sting of the burrs and branches pulling at her hair and tearing at her skin through her thin dress as she breaks free.

Don’t run, little mouse. The cat can’t find you here.

River is running. The shouts are close behind her, getting closer. She fights her way around trees and through bushes.

Too much noise. They hear her. He hears her.

She runs, stumbling over roots and rocks that cut her feet. Ahead of her, the forest canopy begins to thin, letting in more sunlight. She veers toward a cluster of leaf-heavy bushes.

Euonymus alatus. If she leaves the safety of the trees, she may not find adequate cover for concealment. She should stop and rest, weigh her options.

River barely slows as she bursts through the foliage. The ground falls away under her feet and she hangs in midair for a brief second before she plunges down, down, down.

They never taught me to fly.

*

Test RT-2 initiated. Establishing the quantum frequency for comparison, again. Sequence will begin in 5…4…3…2...

River is running.

She’s done this before.

She is running through a forest.

Is it a dream?

Dead leaves crackle beneath her bare feet as she crashes through the underbrush. The branches leave long, stinging welts on her face and arms.

River, stop!

She runs, changing direction randomly, avoiding the easiest paths among the trees.

Stop! Stop! Stop!

She slows and stops. There is a dense cluster of bushes in front of her. She crawls in among the branches. Burrs catch in her hair and her dress. Her heartbeat is loud in her ears; her breath comes in harsh little gasps.

Will she stay hidden?

The forest is quiet but for the wind in the leaves. No birds singing. No rustling of small animals.

They are coming. Will she stay hidden?

Weak light filters through the branches. It is early morning, or nearing sunset.

Be still. Be still.

Distant shouts reach her ears.

It’s happening again. Be still!

She crouches, poised to run.

The cats will chase her if she runs.

~why’s it always gotta be me?~

She stiffens. “Can’t let him find me,” she whispers.

If she must go, go quietly. Find a more secure sanctuary.

~i want my turn with the girls, same as the others. i’m the one what catches ‘em. i want this one fer me.~

She scrambles backward, breaking through a spot where the bramble is thinnest. She ignores the sting of the burrs and branches pulling at her hair and tearing at her skin through her thin dress as she breaks free.

Foolish!

River is running. The shouts are close behind her, getting closer. She fights her way around trees and through bushes.

Too late. He hears her.

She runs, stumbling over roots and rocks that cut her feet. Ahead of her, the forest canopy begins to thin, letting in more sunlight. She veers toward a cluster of leaf-heavy bushes.

Euonymus alatus. Euonymus alatus! Stop! Stop now!

River slows her headlong rush through the foliage. The ground falls away under her feet. She twists and grabs at the crumbling lip of the cliff. She scrabbles for a handhold as she falls until her frantic hands find a root system protruding from the cliff wall. She stops abruptly. She tries to pull herself up, her feet scraping against the stone as she struggles to push herself up.

She will not be able to ascend without assistance.

A shower of pebbles and dirt raining down on her head announces a presence at the top of the cliff.

“Well, lookit here. Yer inna bit of a sitch-u-ayshun, ain’t ya, girl?” A rough-looking blonde man is standing at the edge of the cliff. He smirks down at her. River stares mutely up at him.

Odds of a successful descent are infinitesimal. If he helps her to ascend, the odds that she can acquire his weapon and escape are within acceptable limits.

“Be a lot a hassle to get you back up here, and ya already done caused me more than my gorram share a trouble today.” He squints up at the sun. “I start back now, I’ll get there damn close to supper time. Have me a hot meal tonight. Maybe get me some trim. Was kinda hopin’ it’d be you, but…” He shrugs and looks back down at her, then pulls a pistol from his holster, aims it at her head.

He pulls the trigger.

**

Test RT-3 initi-. Well, gorramit, put her back under. We still haven’t established that damn quantum frequency…Fine, everyone back in ten and we’ll continue.

**

Test RT-3 initiated. Establishing quantum frequency for comparison, for the third gorram time. And Beyliss, I don’t want to hear any more about those damn wobbles in the frequency. It’s a frequency, it’s supposed to wobble, that’s what they do. Sequence will begin in 5…4…3…2...

River is running.

It’s a dream. I’m dreaming.

She is running through a forest.

Wake up.

Dead leaves crackle beneath her bare feet as she crashes through the underbrush. She raises her arms to protect her face. The branches leave long, stinging welts.

I don’t like this dream.

She runs, changing direction randomly, avoiding the easiest paths among the trees.

Wake up!

Her foot catches on an exposed root. She lands heavily on the ground and lies there, stunned, gasping air back into her lungs.

Get up! They’re coming!

She scrambles to her feet, only to fall to the ground again when her leg gives out beneath her weight. A bolt of white-hot pain flares from her ankle before it subsides into a throbbing ache.

Probable muscle damage. Possible bimalleolar fracture. Difficult to diagnose accurately without proper medical equipment. She may not be able to walk.

River drags herself to the nearest tree and props herself against it. She pulls her injured leg up and carefully bends it across her other leg, propping her calf on her thigh. Her ankle is already swelling.

No cover here. No low branches for her to pull herself up into the tree. What will she do?

She picks at a small hole near the hem of her dress, widening it enough to push her fingers through. She tears a wide, ragged strip, fumbling with the material where it’s trapped under her thighs. She wraps it around her foot and ankle, biting her lip bloody as she pulls the material tight.

It is unfortunate she cannot make a proper splint.

 She struggles to stand on her good leg, using the tree for support. She sways, her fingers digging into the rough bark. She rests her head against the tree and slowly sucks in a deep breath, then another, and another.

She is almost out of time.

Nearby, there is a tree with low, leafy branches.

Easy for climbing, if she can make it.

She places her injured foot on the ground in front of her, but falls back against tree when she tries to put any weight on it.

If you can’t walk, you crawl.

She lowers herself to her knees and moves toward her intended hiding place in an odd, hobbling crawl, pushing herself forward with her hands and her good leg.

She is leaving a trail for the hunters to follow.

~gotcha~

A weight lands on her back, pushing her to the ground and leaving her gasping for air for the second time that day.

Why didn’t she hear him sooner?

“Well, lookit here. Yer inna sitch-u-ayshun, ain’t ya, girl?” A rough-looking blonde man flips her over with his foot. She tries to sit up, and he knocks her back down, pinning her to the ground with his boot on her chest. He is holding a rifle loosely in his hands. It is not aimed at her.

He is off-balance. She should remember to compensate for her injury during her counteroffensive.

“I see ya got banged up some. Leg hurt?” He prods her ankle with the rifle. She winces, but remains silent. “Ya gonna answer me, girl?  Does. Yer. Leg. Hurt.” He emphasizes each word with a sharp poke.

~she gonna scream fer me one way or ‘nother.~

She should give him what he wants. Make him think he is in charge.

River screams, long and loud, causing birds to fly out of nearby trees. Tears roll down her cheeks as she lets her scream subside to a series of whimpering sobs. He smiles at her.

She should act soon.

“There now, that weren’t so gorram hard. Yer ankle’s prolly broke. Don’t matter, though. Ya ain’t gonna be on yer feet much, anyway.” He steps back, removing his boot from her chest. “Time to go.” He is still smiling.

Now!

River starts to sit up. He leans forward and, with a swift jab, brings the stock of his rifle down on her head.

*

Test RT/ZW-1 initiated. In yet another attempt to establish a quantum frequency for comparison, we are introducing another subject we know was not present in the target timeline. Maybe she’ll stay alive and conscious long enough to get a fix this time. Sequence will begin in 5…4…3…2…

River opens her eyes.

The room is dim.

~mommamommamommamomma~

She is lying on the floor.

~help, oh help me, help me please~

Her head is in someone’s lap.

River? Where is she?

There are others here, girls, women. They are spread out along the walls of the room, leaving the center empty. Some of them are asleep.

~it’s not real, i’ll wake up soon~

Some of them are only pretending.

~take out the guard and get his weapon. get as many of these girls out as we can. gonna lose some~

“Zoe?” She reaches out and wraps her hand around the arm next to her head.

“River.” Zoe’s voice. “You here with me now?”

“I can’t hear her. She’s hidden by the voices and the screams and the fear.”

“Who? You talkin’ about yourself? You gotta fight it so we can get outta here. Can’t do this on my own.” ~can’t fight my way out and carry her, too. gotta plan. where do we go once we escape? i don’t even know where here is. opened my eyes and here we are~

“Not me. Not yet.” River closes her eyes.

~mommamommamommamomma~

“You got any idea where we are?”~she picked a helluva a time to fall crazy again~

River shakes her head. Zoe shifts under her, and then pulls her arm free.

“I’m going to get a better look out of that window. You wait here.” ~this ain’t gonna end well. no matter what i do ~

River sits up and leans against the wall. Zoe strides over to the room’s lone window, set in the wall to their right. It is dark with grime.

Zoe will not discover anything that can be used to their advantage. She should investigate the door.

River turns her head to study the door. It is directly opposite the window. It looks like wood, just like the walls caging them. She raps her knuckles on the wall behind her, feeling a faint reverberation shiver through it. Metal.

~mommahelpmommahelpmemommahelphelphelp~

Zoe sits down beside her again. “We’re definitely planetside, someplace pretty remote. The window’s sealed. It’s not unbreakable, but there’s nothing in here that would do the job, so it might as well be.” ~wish i knew the guards’ routine~

“Slop the pigs twice a day. Down the hatch.”

Phrases used out of context are not helpful.

Zoe is looking at her, expressionless. River points at the door.

“Down the hatch.”

There is a slot at the bottom of the door, large enough for one of them to get an arm through.

“Food comes through there? What about new arrivals? The guards ever come in here for any other reason?” ~i’m sure they do. i know what men can be~

~don’t let them pick me tonight. not me. not me. don’t let them pick me~

River shrugs.

“You picking up anything?” ~now’d be a good time for her Reader abilities to kick in. we gonna get lucky?~ Zoe rests her head against the wall, her gaze flicking between River, the door, and the rest of the room’s inhabitants.

“Everything. Nothing.” She covers her ears. It doesn’t help.

~gonna get me some trim tonight. been gorram long enough.~ She stiffens.

I know this voice.

“River? You all right?” ~only two kinds of luck – bad and worse. guess which one we’re getting~

“Little pigs, little pigs, let me come in,” she whispers.

“They coming now?” Zoe straightens, alert.

~noNOnononoNOnononoNONONO~

“He’ll blow your house in.” Her eyes meet Zoe’s for a moment, and then she rests her head on her drawn-up knees.

Be ready.

The door opens. Everyone cringes, trying to disappear into the walls behind them. Two men walk in, each holding a stun baton loosely at their sides. They have handguns strapped to their hips. The first man through the door, a rough-looking blonde, stops in the middle of the room.

“Who wants real food tonight? I know ya gotta be tireda that processed go se by now.” He looks around the room. “No volunteers, huh? Guess that means I get ta pick my evenin’s ennertainment.”

~noNOnonohelpNOnonomommaNOnopleasenoNONO~

He walks around the room. It’s hard to tell what he’s looking for; the room is too dim to reveal much about the occupants. Occasionally, he stops in front of one of the girls, smirking down at her when she cowers or whimpers, and then continues his circuit of the room. He finally stops in front of Zoe and River.

I have seen him before. Be cautious.

“Well, I never seen you two here before.” The other man, still standing in the doorway, snorts. “Ya wanna be friends? I’m a real friendly guy.”

River is huddled in a little ball. She glances at Zoe through her hair. Zoe is looking up at the man, expressionless.

~gettin’ outta this room might see us clear~

“Well, you got an answer for me, girl?” ~this one. i like ‘em proud.~

“You want a girl, keep walkin’. You couldn’t handle a woman.” ~this is gonna hurt~

He reaches out with the baton, laying it on Zoe’s shoulder and holding it there. He thumbs a button on the handle and there is a low hum. Zoe stiffens, her lips stretching wide over her clenched teeth in a helpless grimace. After almost half a minute, he pulls the baton away. “Oh, I think I can handle you jus’ fine, woman.”

She can disable the other guard while this one is distracted by Zoe.

River whimpers. The guard grabs Zoe and pulls her to her feet, his hand clamped around her upper arm.

 She is letting every opportunity for escape slip away.

Zoe sags against the wall, her head down. The guard yanks her forward. She stumbles and grabs him, fighting to find her balance. “Eager, ain’tcha?” He pulls her across the room and shoves her at the other man. Zoe staggers into his arms. “Wouldn’t wantcha to get lonesome,” he says with a leer. He grabs River by the hair and pulls her to her feet.

She was made into a weapon. Fight!

River lashes out with her foot, driving it into the side of the man’s knee. He yells and falls to the floor, dragging her down with him. She lands on top of him. He pulls her head back. “Bitch,” he hisses. “Gonna pay fer that.” River jabs him in the throat. He starts to choke and finally lets go of her, his hands scrabbling at his neck. River scrambles to her feet.

Some of the women begin to scream, but the sound of a gun being cocked cuts through the noise. River turns.

*

Finally. Bring in subject 2. Time to dip our toes into the water and see if we find the right pool. Aiya, Beyliss, it’s a metaphor. Let me know when we’re ready to begin.

*

Test RT/JC-1 intiated. Let’s figure out the best time and place to drop them. Keep monitoring the frequency, Beyliss, let me know if they go off baseline. Sequence will begin in 5…4…3…2...

“Shoulda let me kill that hun dan, crazy,” Jayne grumbles. “I had the drop on ‘im. Runnin’ don’t sit right.”

~why’d I let myself get stuck here with the damn moonbrain? maybe her brand of crazy is catchin’~

They are walking single file on a faint trail cut into a steeply sloping cliffside. River’s fingers trail over the rocky wall beside her. Jayne is a few paces ahead of her.

She could reach out and touch him. If she wanted to. Where are they?

River looks up. The top of the cliff looms high above them. She looks down. The ground isn’t much closer.

“You fall, I ain’t catchin’ ya,” Jayne says.

“At this height, survival would be unlikely,” River tells him.

~she better not push me, neither~

He always thinks of her this way.

“I won’t push you.”

 ~get outta my head~ “Damn right you won’t,” he snarls. “Keep movin’.” Jayne turns and continues upward.

The trail narrows and Jayne places his feet carefully as chunks of rock crumble under his weight. River hangs back and lets the distance between them lengthen.

~just gotta keep movin’. get to the top and get free a the moonbrain. find me a transport outta here~

A large section of the trail falls away. Jayne falls with it.

*

Test RT/JC-2 intiated. I need to know about those fluctuations as soon as they occur, Beyliss, not when you have a free moment. Let’s try this again, shall we? Sequence will begin in 5…4…3…2...

“Felt right good, killin’ that hun dan, crazy,” Jayne says with a grin. “Somethin’ wrong with that one. His eyes were just plain mean.”

~getting stuck here with the moonbrain ain’t too terrible. got to kill someone an’ all~

They are walking single file on a faint trail cut into a steeply sloping cliffside. River’s fingers trail over the rocky wall beside her. Jayne is behind her, close enough to touch her.

Is this the same place?

River looks up. The top of the cliff looms high above them. She looks down. The ground isn’t much closer.

“You fall, I won’t be able to catch ya,” Jayne says.

“Survival would be unlikely, falling from this height,” River tells him.

~she ain’t thinkin’ a jumpin’, is she?~

He does not know her at all.

“I won’t jump.”

 ~is she in my damn head again?~ “You’re crazy, but not that crazy,” he snorts. “Better keep movin’.” River nods and continues to walk.

The trail narrows and River places her feet carefully.

“You go on ahead, girl,” Jayne says. “Don’t think this’ll hold our weight too good.”

~just gotta keep movin’. get to the top and me ‘n the girl’ll get free a this place. find a transport outta here~

River whirls around. Jayne is stepping carefully on the narrow part of the trail, chunks of rock crumbling under his weight. A large section falls away. Jayne’s eyes are wide with surprise and his hand is stretched out to her. River reaches for him. He falls.

*

Test RT/JC-3 intiated. We will do this all night if we have to. Don’t tell me the frequencies are identical until the very last moment, Beyliss, because this doesn’t help me at all. Target a different time sequence. Earlier, later, I don’t care. Ready? Sequence will begin in 5…4…3…2...

“You know this hun dan, girl?” Jayne asks her quietly. He is holding a gun on a rough-looking blond man. “’Cuz I don’t like the look of ‘im.”

It’s him. Run, River! Go now!

River turns and runs.

“Gorram it!” ~what’s the moonbrain up to now?~

She is running through a forest. There is a faint trail cut through the trees and she keeps to it. There are loud voices behind her, but they grow fainter as she runs. A gunshot echoes through the air. She runs faster. Stones dig into the soles of her bare feet.

She should remember to wear shoes next time.

She bursts out of the treeline and stumbles to a stop. Ahead of her, the faint trail becomes a broad dirt track. Cultivated fields line either side of the track. A group of people is trudging toward her, carrying bundles on their backs.

River scrambles to the side of the path. “Help,” she whispers. “Can they help?”

The people keep walking. No one looks at her. River puts out her hand to the woman passing right by her, and it passes through her. River turns to watch them on their journey. More fields occupy the place where the forest used to be and the group of people is nowhere to be seen.

Where is she? When is she?

There is a wooden shack set off to one side of the dirt track, almost hidden by the rippling stalks of corn growing around it. River walks toward it, her steps slow. She trips and falls to her hand and knees. When she looks up, she is surrounded by trees.

How did she get so deep into the forest? Did she ever leave it?

River gets up, careful of the protruding roots at her feet. She turns in a circle, but there is no break in the tree line, no sign of the fields she had seen only moments ago. Only the path remains, faint though it is.

Which way should she go?

She reaches out and places her hand on the trunk of a large tree. The bark is rough under her fingers. She takes a step forward.

Rough wooden buildings line a packed-dirt street. People pass back and forth in front of her, intent on unknown errands. A dog barks. She is standing in an alleyway, next to a tall building. She puts a hand out to steady herself. The pre-fab plastiwood that was used to construct the wall is cool. Her fingers follow the faux grain of the plank and come to rest on the corner of the building. The tree bark is rough under her fingers.

What can she believe if she cannot believe her eyes? If she touches is there and not-there?

River is shoved forward. She lands on her hands and knees in the street. A man and woman step through her.

~gotcha~

She scrambles to her feet and whirls around. There is nothing behind her in the alley.

Listen. Can she hear him?

Another shove tumbles her to the ground. She falls as she has been taught, to avoid injury, but a heavy weight lands on her and drives the breath from her lungs. Rough hands pull at her clothes. She sees nothing but a busy street full of people who can’t see her.

She twists and struggles against her unseen attacker. Her hands are captured and held together, pinned to the ground above her head.

~i like ‘em when they fight~

A blast of images filled with violence and accompanied by a sickening wave of lust fills her mind and she screams. Her shirt is torn open and falls away. A hand grabs at her breasts, pinching and squeezing.

If she cannot see him, she must use her other senses.

River tries to wriggle away, but she is trapped by the weight of the body on hers. Tears squeeze from the corner of her eyes. The hand moves lower and paws at her skirt. She tries to twist away.

River, STOP.

River goes limp. She feels the sun beating down on her. The weight holding her down is gone, but her hands are still trapped; she cannot move. A horse walks past her head, a hoof clomping down next to her ear.

No. Be here now.

She closes her eyes and feels the weight of the man on top of her. His hand is squeezing her wrists. Her fingers are numb. Her skirt is pulled up around her waist. He is pulling her underwear down.

Turn it off. That isn’t useful right now.

River concentrates on the hand holding her wrists. The longer she lays unmoving, the looser the grip becomes. She shuts out what the rest of her body is telling her. All that matters is the hand on her wrists.

Now!

River wrenches out of his hold. Her eyes still closed, she rams the heel of her palm into his nose, driving his head back. A fist slams into her cheek. She slaps both hands against his ears. He stills and she wraps her arms around his neck, grabs his chin, and yanks his head sharply to the side. He slumps down on top of her and doesn’t move.

She should check for a pulse. Never assume the enemy is dead until you’ve confirmed it yourself.

River lies on the ground, the man’s dead weight pinning her there. She opens her eyes. She is back in the forest and the blond man is on top of her. He still doesn’t move. She feels for a pulse, but her heart is thundering in her chest and she can’t tell if he has one of his own.

Be alert. If this is deceit, she must be ready for him.

River tries to roll the body off of her, but her limbs are suddenly weak. She lets her arms fall back to her sides. Her body aches all over.

Wo de ma. Gorram it, girl. You alive?”

River looks up and sees Jayne standing over her. She hadn’t noticed his approach. “She is. But is it really her?”

“Don’t go getting all crazy on me now.”

Jayne shoves the man’s body off of her and holds out a hand to help her to her feet.

“Well, come on, moonbrain. I ain’t got all day,” he says when she just looks at it.

“Does he have somewhere to be?” She finally takes his hand and lets him pull her up. Once she is on her feet, she sways and he puts a hand on her shoulder to steady her. Her panties slip down her legs and settle around her ankles. She looks down at them in confusion.

Hun dan,” Jayne spits out. He kneels down and pulls her panties up to her knees. “Well, I ain’t dressin’ ya anymore ‘n that,” he snaps when she makes no move to take over. River blinks and puts a hand on his shoulder.

“She’ll do it.” River finishes pulling up her panties and lets her skirt drop. It swirls around her legs, the dance of the fabric drawing her eye. Dark spots tease the edge of her vision.

Time to go back. Goodbye, River.

~*~

River’s eyes flew open. Her fist flew out, striking the person standing next to her. She hit a nerve cluster and the person cried out.

She was strapped to a bed, though her arms and legs were not restrained. No one else was in the room. River unstrapped herself and sat up, fighting back a wave of dizziness. Time for that later.

The person she had struck was not familiar – not one of her friends, then. It was a woman, dressed in medical attire, clutching her numbed arm. River slid off the bed and moved into a less restricted position.

“Get on the bed,” River told the woman. The woman lunged for the door and River went after her, sweeping her legs out from under her and sending her crashing to the floor. Unable to fully break her fall with only one functional arm, she lay there in a heap, crying out in pain.

“She might sound the alarm. Get on the bed, or more drastic measures will be taken,” River said, her voice trembling.

The woman struggled to her feet and stumbled over to the bed. It took her a few tries, but she lay down on the bed and watched River with wide, fearful eyes. Blood streamed from her nose.

On a tray next to the bed, there was a syringe. River picked it up.

“Needles poking and tearing holes in her skin, leaving threads behind. They tried to sew her up into something new.” River held the syringe in front of the woman’s face. “Where you trying to sew her up, too?”

“It’s j-just a s-s-s-sedative. To he-help you sleep.” The woman began to cry.

“Shh,” River whispered as she jabbed the needle into the woman’s arm and depressed the plunger. “Bedtime.” She turned the woman on her side so she wouldn’t choke on her own blood.

The door opened without trouble. River crept out into a dimly lit hall – it was empty, unless someone was lurking in the shadows; she knew there wasn’t. She looked in both directions and then turned to her left and opened the door to the next room.

It was unlocked…and empty. She checked every room until she got to the end of the hallway and started on the rooms across the hall. Zoe was in the third room, Jayne in the one next to it. They were both unconscious. No one was with them. The rest of the rooms were empty; there was no sign of the rest of the crew.

They had put her and Zoe and Jayne in a repeating nightmare - maybe the same was happening to Simon and Captain Mal and the others? River could do nothing for Zoe and Jayne until they woke up.

River considered her options and set off down the hallway. She had made several seemingly random turns into eerily empty corridors when the lights went out. She stopped and flattened herself against a wall. No one came out of the darkness to grab her. The lights flickered weakly, glowing red – the facility was running on backup power.

“Someone’s misbehaving,” River whispered. She moved faster, pausing only briefly when she came to a set of stairs before running down them as quietly as she could.

She checked the doors at each landing - all locked. When she reached the bottom, there was no door, just a long narrow hallway. Someone was hurrying toward her, their white coat reflecting the flashing red emergency lights.

When he saw her, he stopped abruptly. “How-“ he began, but then turned and ran back the way he had come. River chased after him. She recognized that voice - it had signaled the start of nightmare after nightmare. If he had anyone else from Serenity trapped in the same ordeal, she had to end it.

The hallway opened abruptly into a large room. In the center of the room, there was a large machine. It was at least two stories tall. A network of catwalks gave access to the otherwise unreachable parts of the mechanism, as well as to the next floor. The doctor - scientist - had not taken that route. There were smaller rooms branching off the main room, dark and empty. There was a security door to her right, frozen open by emergency protocols and showing another red-lit hallway. Footfalls echoed through the corridor. She raced after them, rounding a corner just in time to see the scientist disappear through a doorway.

River still had not seen another person, though she knew there had to be others. She cautiously approached the door the scientist had gone through and peeked inside. It was an office, with a desk and a chair. Monitoring equipment took up one wall, lights flickering. A window looked out into the main room containing the large machine, but there was no other exit - it was a dead end. River could sense the scientist inside. He was holding his breath, but his thoughts were racing; he was trying to hide from her.

She shoved the door all the way open. The edge caught the scientist’s shoulder and he jerked away, stumbling into the center of the room. He was no opponent - two strikes had him down on the floor, gasping for the breath that had been driven out of his lungs. River placed her foot lightly on his chest.

“You played with her brain. My brain. Why?”

The scientist wheezed and shook his head. “Didn’t…want…hurt you.”

“You did not ask. You took, just like they took.” River shifted her weight, completely cutting off the scientist’s airflow.

“It’s my fault,” said a voice from behind her. She whirled to face the newcomer, unconsciously dropping into a defensive crouch. The scientist scuttled away on his hands and knees, gagging and coughing.

A man stood in the doorway, backlit by the emergency lights in the hallway. “They needed to run their tests, and I told them to do it. I’m to blame.”

“Why?” River’s throat ached with the need to scream the word, but it came out a whisper.

He raised his hands and stepped into the room. As he came closer, she could finally make out his features in the dim light. “Simon?” It was, but it wasn’t. The shape of his face, the set of his mouth, they did resemble Simon’s features, but everything was just a little off.

“No, but I have been told there’s a resemblance.” He gave a little half smile. He indicated a chair by the desk. “May I sit? The answer to your question is…complicated.”

River rose from her crouch and backed up slowly until she was pressed against the wall. “Please, sit. We mustn’t forget our manners.” Her eyes darted around the room. “I would offer refreshments, but I wasn’t expecting visitors.”

“No, thank you, I’m fine.” He looked sad for a moment. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

“You already have.”

He flinched. “I know. I’m sorry. And I can’t promise I won’t do it again.”

“You don’t want to, but you will. To save lives.”

“To win this gorram war, finally, and save a lot of lives.”

“How?” River was a genius, but the connection between making her experience a nightmare over and over and winning the rekindled war against the Alliance eluded her. Unless… “Time isn’t linear. We just live it that way. You found a way to loop it back again?”

“Not me personally, but yes.”

“And the variable timelines?”

“We actually stole that from the Alliance. It’s how we figured out the actual time travel.”

“Why me?”

“We’ve got the Alliance backed into a corner. They’re ready to deal.”

“With you.”

“Not just me, but I am a fairly important part of the team. I have been since the beginning. There’s just one little problem…”

River shook her head. She couldn’t make sense of his thoughts. How could she be…?

“I’ve got an unusual background. My parents…they…gorramit,” he bit out, “this is harder than I thought.”

“They came from now, but you were born then?”

“Exactly. My parents went back in time and eventually had me. It wasn’t an easy life for them. I think they always regretted doing it. And now I’m making sure that I will be born by sending them back anyway.”

“You have to do it, because you’ve already done it. But the multiverse theory-“

“I’m not taking any chances that this timeline will change if I don’t do it. This is the timeline I’m a part of, this is the one I’m going to keep moving forward. My existence may only be one thread, but we don’t know how my absence will change things. We won’t risk it.”

“So you’re sending me back. Because one day I’ll be-”

“My mother.”

River slid down the wall until she was sitting on the floor. “The multiverse,” she murmured. “Somewhere, a River is dancing and worlds burn.” She wrapped her arms around her knees, hugging them tightly to her chest. “Do they burn because she dances?”

“It’s not that simple. I might be doing this because I don’t know what will happen if I don’t exist, but the ‘verse doesn’t revolve around one person’s decisions. Even though it sometimes feels like it.” He rubbed his face with one hand. 

“How do you know? She put on the green shirt instead of the blue shirt, and her whole life changed. Such a small decision to create such a big change.”

“Sorry, m-, uh, River, I don’t understand the shirt thing.” He ran a hand through his hair. “It’s like dropping a pebble in a pond. You get ripples. So every decision is a pebble, and everybody is dropping them left and right, all in the same pond. Ripples everywhere. Who knows how those ripples will interact? And then it turns out that it’s not just pebbles in one pond, but in infinite ponds, and sometimes the pebbles are dropped in one pond and not another, or at different times. Or the pebbles are bigger. Or smaller. At least, that’s the way the theory was explained to me.”

“Your metaphor is long and boring. But mostly accurate.”

“It’s your own fault if it’s boring. You’re the one who explained it to me.”

“My future isn’t set, even if it’s your past. If I do go back, there’s no guarantee things will happen the same way. Knowledge of the future changes it.”

“I believe it will work, because it did work.”

“Circular logic.”

“I call it irrefutable evidence.” His face softened. “I’m sorry. There’s a place where you’re dancing and the war never happens. I wish I could give you that life, but I can’t.”

“This is the only life I can have.”

“I know how you feel. You- my mother- she was always up front about the time travel thing, once I was old enough to understand. Not that you- she- shit. I was never told exactly what was going to happen. Just vague personal stuff. Uncle Simon. Serenity and her crew.”

“The war will be over soon?”

The man showed no sign that the abrupt change of topic had surprised him. “We’ve got enough money, firepower, and popular support to force the Alliance to meet our demands. That will put an end to the fighting. The rest - healing and reconciliation - that will take longer.”

The second war - the Separation War, as some were calling it - had been raging for years. The new Browncoats were more organized, but they were up against the vast resources of the Alliance. Serenity and her crew did what they could to help, but Mal had decided to stay off the front lines - he’d had enough of war the first time around. River knew his heart couldn’t take another defeat if the Browncoats lost again.

She would do it. For her family. Even if it meant never seeing them again. “Should go soon. Captain’s on his way. He won’t be happy.”

River couldn’t remember how they’d ended up here, but if this man was a Browncoat… Mal wouldn’t have looked for betrayal from his own side.

“You’ll go?” His relief was palpable.

She caught an image from him - him tossing her into a glowing light, bound and gagged. It was almost funny, in a sad and terrifying way. She nodded anyway. “Noah’s Ark,” she said, remembering Shepherd Book’s Bible. Two by- she cut that thought off before it could lead to memories better left alone.

“Two by two,” the man completed it for her unknowingly. “How to get…” his voice trailed off.

His parents, he had said. If she was to be a mother, there would be a father. But who was it? Who was it? Who-

 “Who is it?” River gazed directly at him for the first time.

“What?”

“Who is it? Who is it?” She clutched her head and squeezed her eyes shut.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I can’t stop thinking about-“ He stood abruptly and started pacing. River slowly opened her eyes and watched him.

“Never questioned it before. Are you someone else now?”

“No. No, it’s not that. Not entirely.” He looked over at her, a speculative look on his face.

“Can’t give you knowledge I don’t have.” River looked away.

His shoulders slumped. “I feel like maybe I’m just one more bad thing that happened to you.”

“Did she love you?” she asked, suddenly.

“Who?”

“Your mother.”

You are my mother.”

“Not yet. Maybe one day. Did she love you?”

“I suppose.” He started pacing again. “All right, yes. You di- she did. My mother loved me.”

“Not an entirely bad thing to happen, then."

“Maybe,” he said, and sat down heavily. “So you’re on board,” he muttered, “but what about-“

“Where you at, girl?” a voice yelled from somewhere outside the room, echoing down the hallway. Jayne. He had found her. She thought about calling out to him, but her voice was trapped inside her head again. No matter - he was getting closer. She wondered where the rest of the crew was.

The man was silent. Their conversation was over.

They didn’t hear Jayne coming - for all his size, he could move silently when he wanted to. He appeared in the doorway. His gaze flicked over the whole room and then he stepped inside.

“Jayne Cobb,” the man said as he stood, wonder shading his voice.

“I know you?” Jayne squinted at the man. “You the hun dan who did all this?” He waved his hand around eloquently.

“I am.”

“Let’s get acquainted, then. I got two fists just dyin’ to meet yer face.” Jayne started forward, ready to strike.

The man held up a hand, stopping Jayne with a few quick words. “Sorry about that. Here.” He pulled a small bag out of a pocket and tossed it to Jayne. Jayne caught it easily and opened it.

“That’s a lot of coin.”

“For your trouble. And here.” The man pulled another bag from a different pocket and tossed that one to Jayne, too. It was much heavier. “There’s a job for you, if you accept.”

Jayne opened the bag and grunted. “What’s the job? ‘Cause I’ll do most anything if I’m paid enough, but I got lines I don’t cross. Got infected with ruttin’ morals and whatnot. Just a few, mind.”

The man nodded. “I just need you to protect River. She’s going on a trip. One way.”

Jayne looked up sharply. “One way fer both of us?”

“Yes.”

“And how long do I gotta protect her?”

“Just until she’s safe.”

“That’ll only be the rest of my gorram life,” Jayne muttered. He hefted the larger bag of coins. “I don’t see as this is enough fer me to leave behind my…everything.”

“It’s a fresh start. No Mal or Simon.” The way he said their names, as if he knew them, or knew of them...Is it living in the past if your past is the future?

“That’d almost be worth it, I guess,” Jayne smirked, but he looked troubled.

“Jayne,” River said quietly and waited for him to look at her.

“River?” Jayne flicked a glance at her, but he kept his attention focused on his potential employer.

She could remember every single time Jayne had used her name; she added one more to the tally. “Please?”

“You thinkin’ this is a good idea?” Jayne backed away slowly until he could keep an eye on River and the man at the same time, the two bags of coins clenched in his fists. She knew he would go with her, but getting him to admit it would be difficult.

“There’s a high probability that it will be.”

“That ain’t a ‘yes’.”

“Not a ‘no’, either.”

Jayne snorted. His thoughts were moving in a straight line, easy to follow. He made illogical connections and came to the correct conclusions - it was sometimes frustrating. When he finally spoke, his words were no surprise to her. Many people underestimated Jayne; the man wasn’t one of them - he wasn’t surprised by Jayne’s words, either.

“So you want me to go on a one-way time travelin’ trip with the moonbrain?” Jayne barked out a laugh. “Does that thing even work?” He jerked his thumb at the large machine visible through the window. The time machine.

“We’ve tested it,” the man answered shortly.

“On people?”

Jayne’s words threw the man’s thoughts into chaos. “Yes,” he finally answered.

“They survive?”

“Not all of them.”

Jayne snorted. “I must be out of my gorram mind,” he muttered. He turned to River. “You sure about this?”

River nodded. Easier than she’d thought.

“I’ll take the job.”

The man glanced between Jayne and River. “Wait here,” he said and quickly left the room.

“Out of my gorram mind,” Jayne repeated.

*

The man returned some time later, carrying a box which he set down by the door.

“Things you’ll need. I’ve started the sequence and the machine will be ready for the transfer in a few minutes.”

“That’s it?” Jayne asked.

“Just come out when you’re ready.” The man looked like he was going to say something else but he turned and left again.

“’Come out when you’re ready’, he says. Feng le, every gorram one of us.” Jayne looked in the box the man had left. “Hun dan. Where’d he get Vera? And Binky?” Jayne pulled a large knife in its sheath from the box and strapped it on. “He musta boarded Serenity. Mal’s gotta be pissed.” He armed himself with a variety of weapons and held up two small packs. “Clothes and some le se ration bars. Guess we won’t starve right away,” he said as he pawed through one of them.

River stared out at the machine as she listened to Jayne ramble. It looked like it was designed by a fan of old science fiction vids. Cables sprouted from it and ran all over the floor and up to the ceiling far above. In the middle there was a circular opening. A bright glow was coming from the opening and there was a deep hum in the air.

“Time to go,” she said absently.

“Just like that, huh? Yer gonna just up and leave yer brother like that? The rest of the crew?”

River pulled the letter she’d written while they were waiting out of her dress pocket and laid it on the bare desk. Simon and the others were coming; he would find the letter eventually. It wouldn’t make things any easier for him. “He wouldn’t let me go.” If she saw him, any of them, she wouldn’t be able to make herself leave.

“Damn right he wouldn’t. Not Mal or Zoe, neither. Or Kaylee. Or ‘Nara. Dunno why I’m going along with it, now I think on it.”

“I have to do it. I’ve already done it.”

“Uh-huh.” Jayne settled the packs over his shoulder and adjusted his weapons. “Let’s go before I find my gorram sense. Least Mal won’t be able to space me fer this.”

The route back to the central room containing the time machine was roundabout. It gave River too much time to think of what was coming. Jayne was no help - he was engaged in a silent debate with himself about going and his thoughts led her along the same path.

When they reached the central room, the machine was glowing and humming steadily. People were bustling along the catwalks above them, but no one was down on the main floor with them - with the machine.

“Just step through when you’re ready,” the man yelled from over their heads. “And River…I’m sorry for everything. I don’t know how to thank you for what you’re doing.”

River tilted her head, but otherwise ignored him. One day he might mean something to her, but his apologies and his thanks were equally meaningless right now. People always want to know their future; knowing hers, even if it was only a potential future, was hell.

“We have to go,” she told Jayne. “Simon’s coming.”

Jayne hesitated. “I had a dream, girl. Things weren’t so good. We do this, is that dream gonna be real?” Jayne was staring at the glowing portal that would take them out of time, unease plain on his face.

“If the river changes course, another river will flow in its place.”

“Gorramit, I unnerstood ya better when you were crazy. Make sense, would ya?”

“What needs to happen will happen.  Maybe it will happen to us.”

“Well, that’s real clear.”

River gazed silently at him. Finally, Jayne shrugged.

“Let’s go if we’re goin’. I ain’t got all day.”

River smiled, turned and looked up at the catwalk where the man who’d brought them to this point was watching them, and then walked steadily into the glowing light of the portal.

*

Jayne paused before following River through the opening. He squinted up at the man who’d paid him, illuminated by the glow coming from the machine. There was something about his profile…

“Mattie?” Jayne muttered. “That’s creepifyin’.” He shook his head and stepped into the light.