The last thing River hears–over the thud-thud-thud of the machine and the scientists screaming at each other–is her brother calling her name. He's yelling it like he's going to die, or she is. Then everything stops, and she's alone in the silence.
It's dark, and still, and she can't feel anyone near her, but when she looks up the sky is full of stars. They're the kind of stars you can only see from the black, and they're wrong.
River turns around and steps back the way she came, and now it's day, and there's people.
Not here. She can feel the not-here people though, so close. She turns again–she always comes out facing north–and looks down. There's a city there now, stacked onto the side of the mountain, and full. Its walls shine white in the sunlight, and River's sure she would have seen it had it been there the night before.
It smells of horses and wood smoke, and the minds far below move slowly. They glow fierce, not dim, but they don't move quick and bright like the city minds River knows.
She thinks it might be because of the giant red eye that's watching everyone.
She steps back through–is it a doorway? A portal? A rift? What had the scientists been trying to use her for?–and when she comes out again, it's sunset, and the city is younger and full of hope.
She finds a pattern, the ins and outs of spaceport traffic lanes, only invisible, all she needs to do is to figure out when to step back so that the rift puts her where she started, the trick, the sideways slip that will return her.
Time is definitely a problem. Not that she's lost in time, she knows what to do about that by now, but that she can never tell one jump to another when she is. Kaylee would call it putting a puzzle together without the box, but River thinks it's more like resequencing your own DNA without being able to see molecules. Or without knowing what a molecule is.
Also, the planets are not moving rationally.
She finds this out when she sits up three nights in a row–shawl wrapped three times around her shoulders, her legs dangling off the edge of the cliff so her heels can kick the moss–and watches them intently. Below her, the city in the river is burning, but she ignores it. These people are not her people, nor are these her stars.
Whatever the fast little red planet is, the innermost one, it retrogrades to conjunction with the brightest blue planet every evening at sunset. The blue planet, in turn, always follows the sun, and never goes behind it. It makes as much sense as the Shepherd's paper symbol, and River does not like it.
There's a single rocky moon, tidally locked to the planet, and has an orbital period of more than twenty five and less than thirty of this planet's days. There is no planet in the Alliance with a moon like that; she knows the system charts like she knows Simon's fingerprints. It's familiar.
Are the "planets" really satellites or ships? Can she get to them?
She turns to go back through–no matter how the land changes, her rift remains–and stumbles; her blood falls from head to toes. She hasn't eaten since breakfast on the Serenity. Simon always remembers for her when she needs to eat.
As she falls forward, she hopes that there will be people in the when she lands in.
River falls against a stack of wood. She's under a little house, and she can feel soldiers near by. One is bored–tired of waiting for something he doesn't think is going to happen–the other watches an eagle–wishing he too could fly. They have bird wings on their hats. They don't know she's there.
Below, the white city is still there, older and with a tall stone tower, and the city in the river is ruined a thousand years since.
She's skipping through time like a stone on uneven water. How many more jumps before she sinks?
A stone could jump free of the pond, if only it could control its vectors.
The men are curious, but not afraid of her, not of a little girl in a soft green dress and shawl, no matter that they can't figure out how she got there. When the bored one asks her something, she doesn't understand the words. He wants to know who she is, but she can't find exactly what to say. It's not English or Mandarin or Latin or lost old German.
"River," she says in English, pointing to herself. "River," she says again, pointing to the strip of water far below. It twists and shines like raw wire.
"Anduin?" he asks, and she nods. Close enough.
She points to her mouth and gives him the same sad look that makes Simon do anything in the 'verse.
The eagle man laughs. He has bread and cheese to share, and as they talk between them she gets a sense of the words, what they say to what they mean in their heads. She thinks so anyway; not everyone always says what they mean.
What she really wants to do is ask what year it is, but she doesn't think they'll come close to that, and the words elude her.
When she's finished eating, she bows, and walks back around the stack of wood and into the rift.
River thinks she's getting the hang of history here, the waves of settling, building and burning. Armies march across ploughed fields and monsters claw at the gates. They aren't Reavers, but they have the same souls.
On clear nights, she watches the stars to catch the time of year. When it's raining, she doesn't wait, just re-enters the rift until she finds a nicer place. (How long she stays shapes the jumps, as the rift fluctuates, but she can't tell if that matters as much as other factors. If she waits for what she thinks are thirty minutes, she does not consistently jump what she thinks are thirty years. Sometimes she does. Hidden variables plague her.)
When the beacon–she's learned that's what it is–is there, she tries to talk to the soldiers. It's a funny language, like English before there was English, and it sticks in her throat.
"It's like knowing when to jump," she tries to explain, "You're on a horse, and it's going to turn, but you want to go the other way. Only I don't know where I am."
"You should not jump from horses, Mistress River," that day's soldier says, but thinks that she sounds like a Rohirrim. That's good to know. There isn't always a Rohan. There isn't always an watching eye, either. She tells him that, but it doesn't make him worry less.
The other soldier is very old, as old as Shepherd Book, and thinks she's a river spirit. Which is just silly, because wouldn't she be in the river? River thinks that this would be easier if she were. They keep saying there's magic here, but she doesn't understand.
She doesn't understand why everyone's so stupid here. It's been five thousand years. Why haven't they discovered calculus and invented space travel?
She could use a space ship right now. The blue and red planets are a glowing rock on a wooden ship and a bird, respectively. The eye is actually an eye, or at least everyone calls it that. River's sorry she asked.
She's not a skipping stone; she's a wind-blown leaf, caught in gusts that push her this way and that, when all she wants to do is achieve escape velocity. When she thinks of that, she starts to cry and can't stop.
The beacon is there, but the guards are not. Across the river, the twin city is gone, and the fire has left the mountain, but she doesn't know what that means except that the eye is gone also. She's forward, obviously, but not far enough in time or space. She thinks of the soldier who wanted to fly, and misses everything.
Below, an army marches out of the gates and turns towards the south.
River steps into fire. The beacon is lit. She spins and leaps back into the rift, but flames chase after her, catching the edges of her skirt and holding tight.
She wakes in a bed in the city, and she remembers.
They were looking for a way back to Earth-That-Was, a way back that didn't need generations asleep and a thousand years. They'd made the rift to get there, but their minds moved too slowly, they didn't feel enough, and it spun away. Some of them had escaped the Alliance Parlement's purge of Blue Sun. Some of them remembered her.
They'd kidnapped Simon as well. To handle her. Which he was getting pretty sick of, he said. As if he knew the half of it.
But now she's in the city, with a new dress and something caked on her legs. It smells herby and moist, and when she puts some on her tongue doesn't taste like much of anything.
"Take me to your leader," River says when the doctor comes in.
After she's drunk soup–boring–and rested–pointless and boring, their leader sends his son. He's tall, taller than Jayne, and pale, but with hair darker than Inara's. His clothes are beautiful like Inara's too, if sturdier, and he wears a sword. He loves his father, but thinks himself ready to rule the city. He tells her his name is Boromir, but seems to already know her name.
"My father thinks you a witch," he tells her, blunt not cruel, "But Beregond, a guardsman of the City, holds that you are the spirit of the Great River, condemned to haunt the beacon at the feet of Mindolluin."
River hesitates; she has to change the words in her head to words in his language, and she knows her accent sounds odd. "I'm not a witch, or a ghost, or an elf," she adds, because he's thinking it, and because his father doesn't trust elves or magic any more than witches, and his eldest son trusts only sharp steel, strong arms and loyal soldiers. River thinks of Zoe, wonders if she's rescued Simon yet. "Relativity is actually quite relative," she tries to say, but it comes out, "The years are not the same for everyone."
He doesn't understand that either. No one's ever told him about time, and when she tries to explain that for some people years are like a boat in the middle of his great river, but that she is going around and around and around like a feather caught in an eddy, he doesn't look especially interested.
"My brother understands more of these things," Boromir says eventually, "Perhaps he would know of what you speak."
Perhaps he would, but his brother has a mind of turns that River could get lost in. Boromir flows like the river. "It doesn't matter," she says, "I'll go soon."
He frowns. "You will remain until the healers release you."
River ducks her head, agreeing, for now, and asks for a book.
"You are able to read, Little One?" Boromir asks. He does not think common girls read. Very few do here. No wonder they haven't got to space yet.
"Obviously," River says, then falters. She hasn't seen the writing here yet, but it probably isn't that complicated. It will be like a code. "Mostly," she says at his frown. "I can learn."
"Perhaps I shall read to you."
"I like history," she tries to tell him, but it comes out "Tales of the years." All the events she's seen, in order, with dates. She should have come to the city twenty jumps ago.
Boromir tries to hide another frown. He does not like history. He likes stories of heroes and battles, which are somehow different, but mostly he does not read at all, and he doesn't know why he made the offer. He takes his leave, bowing a little too deeply, a little too stiffly.
That evening, after more soup and more rest–both still boring, Boromir returns with a leather-bound book. He lets her look over his shoulder as he reads aloud, so it doesn't take her long to break the code. She doesn't ask him to stop once she does.
River knows that he's doomed from the start. She's seen the future, when there's a king again, and no room for proud stewards who wish to rule. She tries to tell him that, wanting him to have time to change, but it just makes him unhappy, and when his father hears of it–as his father hears of everything–awkward and defensive. He's like Simon, used to doing what's expected, not sure how not to.
River's never really expected him to come for her.
If she stays here, maybe Simon will be a doctor again, like he should have been. She starts to cry, all the harder because she doesn't regret what Simon gave up for her, not really. She wouldn't trade it back, even with time travel.
The doctors fuss, and then placate, and then call Boromir.
Boromir who hasn't the least idea what to do with a crying woman, but is used to panicky horses, who pets her hair and murmurs, "Mmmmmmm," until she dries her eyes, then kisses her forehead and says he has duties.
River finishes the history book on her own time, and then another. She's reading fast now, and the pattern is like sun catching the dew on a spider's web. She thinks she knows the trick of it now, what would make her move one way more than another, what could slip her sideways and all the way home.
"I can leave soon," she tells Boromir.
"The healers have told you this?"
River shrugs. If not, she can climb out a window. Timing matters more than the fading burns on her legs and hands.
She laughs when Boromir frowns. He has such a frowny face, so stern, but beautiful when he's happy. Without thinking of it, her hands fly up and and stroke his face back, pressing it towards a smile. She does not expect it when he turns his face into her hand and kisses her palm. His eyes are wide; he hadn't expected it either.
The dreams ruin everything. They're not real dreams, not like they're supposed to be. They come from something else. There are other things that watch like the eye, but that are different. Things like the glowing-rock boat and the bird women. Things that are too powerful. They send the dream to the sons of the city, and even though they are far from her, guarding the ruins of the old bridge, River can feel the dreams dropping into time like nuclear bombs.
She wants to stop them. It will break them, the sons. She knows how it ends, but the peaceful kingdom, the eye defeated, they're not worth that. She tries to tell Boromir that, when he returns to the city, but he won't listen.
"Enough, Little One," he says, kissing her. It's gentle, and final, and she doesn't want it to end. "I have my duty."
"Your pride," she corrects.
She wishes the last she saw of him hadn't been that frown.
He leaves. The doom of men is a phase she's read in that book of his, only now River understands it.
She works out the numbers again, sketching them in water droplets and rows of crumbs–she's up to bread and cheese as well as soup. She can jump home. The pattern is clear, and the timing is set.
She can jump home, or she can go back to remake the circumstances. Or forward a little to save him. She can choose now. She can pick the perfect place to leverage the world into her liking.
She can shape Boromir into a different man; he can be a man who wouldn't leave her because of duty and pride. A man who would let his brother go. A man who wouldn't fall.
She can meddle. She can be meddlesome.
Two nights later, River climbs out the window, up the mountain, and steps into the rift.
Her family are waiting on the other side.