River liked to talk to spaceships. They didn't have any distracting subconscious thoughts to confuse her.
Besides, they taught her all kinds of interesting things about space-time and folds in space and faster-than-light travel. And evasive maneuvers and docking and thrusters. And also about fish. (But that was another story entirely.)
One time she'd gotten so involved in a conversation with an Alliance cruiser that she forgot to ask him if he could develop an imbalance in his port thruster so Serenity wouldn't have to make quite so daring an escape. Wash had to do some tricky maneuvering and Mal taught her three new curse words and Kaylee apologized to her engines.
When everyone was asleep, River went down to the engines and sat with them for a while, apologizing in her own way. Sleepily they assured her that they understood, but they'd appreciate not having to do that again until Nice Lady (an approximation of how they thought of Kaylee) could get them a replacement for the inertial polarizer.
River said she'd try and patted the engines before going off to bed.
Sometimes River tried to figure out why the others couldn't hear Serenity the way she could, but then she would get distracted by counting the passing neutrinos and forget about it.
One afternoon, while River sat perched on a railing watching Jayne, Mal, and the Shepherd moving boxes, she heard a new ship. She was...far away, which was new and interesting. But she was so noisy that River could hear her anyway.
Tilting her head, River tried to make sense of what the new ship was trying to say.
"Is something wrong?" Inara asked as she walked by.
"Can't quite understand her," River said absently. "Funny accent."
"Goldie. She's telling me a story."
"Goldie?" Inara took a deep breath, looking rather sorry to be asking.
"Heart of Gold," River said. "It's a story about two men floating in space. And penguins. And the President of the Galaxy."
Inara blinked. "Oh."
"It's infinitely improbable."
"That's what I've always said about Serenity," Inara said as she walked away.
River went back to asking Goldie questions about Brownian motion producers and other tea-related things.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has this to say about insanity:
It is important for the well-informed hitchhiker to know what insanity is, because it is remarkably unpleasant to have your travels derailed by a trip to the local asylum.
Unfortunately, insanity depends on your point of view. On Mixilplitic V, for example, insanity is defined by your children. (As opposed to the thousands of other planets where it is caused by your children.)
On the desert planet of Afalmingo, it is considered insane to fall in love. This has led to the banning of romantic comedies, low lights in restaurants, and honeymoon suites with heart-shaped beds--proving that everything has its good side.
An ape-descended mammal from a small blue and green planet said "Insanity is often the logic of an accurate mind overtasked," but nobody listened to him anyway.
River heard Simon coming two decks away, but she didn't move from her position staring out at the stars upside down through a porthole. There wasn't any point, since he'd just worry louder and louder until he talked at her.
"River? Mei mei?"
She dropped to the floor in front of him and tried to wait for him to ask his question. But Goldie was talking and she got distracted. Simon was giving her a worried look, so she said, "Talking to Goldie."
Oh. He hadn't asked what she was doing yet. "Out of order again," she said, frowning. "Need to wait."
"What's out of--" Simon shook his head. "Never mind."
"Goldie's telling me about a book. A wonderful book about everything."
"A ship." Sighing, River waited.
"River, we talked about this. I know you can have some telepathic abilities, but ships don't have minds for you to read."
Bouncing on the balls of her feet, River asked Goldie if her crew understood her. She wasn't surprised to learn the answer was no.
"River? Are you listening?"
River stretched backward into an arch. "Listening doesn't mean agreeing."
"I..." Simon rubbed his forehead, sighing. "Never mind. Wuh tzai chien shr ee-ding ruh dao shuh-muh run luh bah..."
Frowning, River tried to remember how this conversation was supposed to make her brother feel better.
Families, the Hitchhiker's Guide says, can provide food, shelter, and clean towels to weary travelers, especially if they can be convinced that you are a long-lost relative.
This can be difficult if said families decide you need to be married immediately, but the Guide provides a complete list of planets that allow shotgun weddings and a list of suggested excuses to avoid marriage that are guaranteed to work on an additional 7,577 planets.
The hardest part of building the finite improbability engine (precursor to an infinite improbability engine) was finding a few of the more complicated parts of the Bambleweeny 57 Sub-Meson Brain. Fortunately, Kaylee didn't mind if River dug through the spare parts bin, as long as she didn't break anything (or break anything more than it already was).
Goldie made some helpful suggestions, but it still took a month and two planetfalls before the engine was ready.
(That included the time it took to rebuild when Jayne discovered she'd swiped a piece of one of his guns and came looking for her. That ended up with the entire crew standing in a hallway yelling at each other while River did handstands and walked her feet along the wall. When the shouting reached its peak, she sidled up to Simon and whispered, "Offer him the candy." She got the gun parts back.)
The finite improbability engine wasn't a particularly prepossessing piece of machinery, but River was the last person to be fooled by appearances, so she and Goldie went over it piece by piece until they were sure it would work.
The Infinite Improbability Drive, says the Guide, is a wonderful new method of crossing interstellar distances in a few seconds; without all that tedious mucking about in hyperspace. As the Improbability Drive reaches infinite improbability, it passes through every conceivable and non-conceivable point in every conceivable and non-conceivable universe simultaneously.
In other words, unless you set the coordinates of where you want to end up, you're never sure where you will end up or even what species you will be when you get there. It's therefore important to dress accordingly.
River decided the finite improbability engine needed a proper test. Goldie made some suggestions, but the one that resonated with River was...well, let's just say it made for a good party trick if you were a bored physicist who never got invited to the really fun parties.
She meandered into the mess while everyone was eating and sat down in the corner with the engine, making a few last-minute tweaks and fiddling with the tea to make sure it didn't spill.
Simon kept half an eye on her and Kaylee smiled and waved her chopsticks, but everyone else ignored her, as they always did. River tilted her head and decided the test was as optimal as it would ever be. She hit a series of buttons and waited.
"Gwai-gwai long duh dong!" Jayne hollered, nearly knocking over his chair as he pushed backward. River considered the results and nodded, pleased, as Jayne tried to cover his entire naked body with his hands.
Zoe, face neutral, handed him his clothing, which had somehow landed in her lap. Kaylee's eyebrows hit the ceiling, Wash was giggling outright, and Mal continued to eat his noodles without reacting at all. Simon shot a quick glance at River, but went back to helping Jayne shove his clothing on without saying anything. Shepherd Book heaved a sigh and River could feel him thinking about her, but he didn't look in her direction at all.
By the time Jayne had his pants half on, he'd turned to glare at River, who ignored him in favor of poking at the engine.
"It's her," he said, pointing at River with the hand that wasn't holding his pants up. "She's...boo-tai jung-tzahng-duh!"
"That's true," Mal said, glancing up for the first time, "but I don't know why she'd want to traumatize us quite like this. Thought you said she wasn't evil, Doc."
Simon covered his mouth, trying to decide how to react.
"Well, I sure as hell didn't do it, Mal." Jayne stamped a foot on the floor.
Mal flicked a glance at River. "True enough, Jayne."
"What are you going to do?"
"Finish my dinner," Mal said, scooping up another pile of noodles with his chopsticks. "Sit down and finish yours." He glanced at Wash. "Zoe, I'd take it kindly if you'd either get your husband to stop laughing or remove him before Jayne kills him. I'd hate to break in a new pilot right now."
Wash's laughter died and Zoe grinned for the first time. "Taken care of, sir."
Jayne sent River a venomous glance but she ignored him, picking up the finite improbability engine and calling out to Goldie as she left the room. They had a lot more work to do.
River spent a week tweaking the engine, which involved brewing a great many cups of tea. And she had to borrow one of Wash's dinosaurs, which she felt bad about, but it had exactly the right level of springiness to cushion part of the sub-meson nebulizer.
"Uh..." Wash said, looking between her and the dinosaur. "What do you need it for?"
"Generating infinite improbability," River said, a bit impatient with the pilot's slowness.
"Right. You said that." Wash considered her for a moment. "Oh well, I guess I owe you for the good laugh." Shrugging, he handed her the dinosaur. "Try not to damage it, will you? These things don't grow on trees."
"Haven't you ever heard of a rubber tree plant?" River asked as she danced down the ladder.
"Was that a joke?" Wash called after her. "Do you even make jokes?"
The first five editions of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy had extensive sections on humor, jokes, riddles, and how to earn a little money doing standup comedy on street corners.
But those sections were excised after The Great Comedian Purge of Dragonia VI, which was started by a hitchhiker, a water-filled flower, and a joke about Vogon women.
Several weeks later, the infinite improbability engine (which, improbably, looked like a miniature and very grimy cappuccino machine) was done.
For this test, Goldie informed her, the engine should work anywhere in the ship, but River felt in her bones that it needed to be somewhere in the engine room, so she carefully carried it down and set it up in a corner.
Kaylee looked briefly surprised when she poked her head out from underneath a Tesla coil, but she shrugged and smiled. "Hey there," she said.
Nodding, River considered how she was supposed to respond. Simon had tried to explain polite conversation to her, but somehow it all slipped her mind at times like this. "Serenity's cold," she offered eventually, knowing Kaylee was very interested in the ship. "Lonely without a star. But you're good company."
"Well that's shiny," Kaylee said, patting the floor. "And I'm surely doing my best to get her moving faster."
River nodded and put the infinite improbability engine down in a corner. She could move the ship a great deal farther than Kaylee, but it didn't seem polite to point it out.
Goldie made some suggestions on how to steer and River frowned, trying to translate them into her universe's constants. Eventually, she decided that as long as she could keep from dropping them into a sun or black hole, that would probably do for the first test.
Kaylee was used to River, so she thought nothing of her behavior, smiling and ducking her head back under the coil.
River sat down next to the engines and listened to Serenity and the shifting universe.
Goldie complained that she didn't need to go through all this preparation to get anywhere. River patted her and pointed out that Goldie had been built with the infinite improbability engine inside her.
Eventually, River felt everything align just right and she pushed the big red button. There was a moment in which her stomach strongly considered rebelling, then River opened her eyes.
She smiled as Serenity's engines morphed into elephants, clapping her hands with glee at the little mice dressed as rajahs riding atop them.
Tilting her head, she decided the universe was overdoing it a bit with the fireworks. But the universe was showy.
Sitting back against a wall that was now made of strawberries, River watched the show.
Kaylee staggered from behind the elephants' legs. "River! What's this?"
"Infinite improbability," she said after considering the question.
"Yes, but..." Kaylee jumped as the elephants turned into dragons. Pink dragons. In yellow tutus. Doing Swan Lake. "What's it doing here?"
"We need to pass through everything," River said, trying to understand the question.
Kaylee shook her head, dislodging the lei placed there by a hula dancer. "How do we make it stop?"
River looked mournfully at the infinite improbability engine, which had turned into a giant rock with a button in the middle that said, "Absolutely Do Not Push." She could hear Kaylee's panic and not far away, she could hear the rest of the crew, who sounded equally unhappy. With a sigh, she pushed the button.
There was a sound like the universe being given a wedgie and they were back in regular space.
The comms were back and everyone was yelling. River put her hands over her ears, but that only blocked the outside yelling.
There was a loud clang and all the voices stopped. "That's enough," Mal hollered. "Everything shut your mouths for a minute. Roll call."
He called everyone's names and they all answered with varying degrees of pissed off in their voices. When he got to River, Kaylee hastily said, "She's here with me and just fine, Cap'n."
After a suspicious silence, Mal went on, "Okay, we're all in one piece, so let's see about figuring out where we are and if the ship's still together."
"We're just outside orbit of Newhall," River said.
There was a moment in which everyone held their breath, then Wash said, "She's right."
"Well, then," Mal said, "that's not such a bad thing. We'll just deliver our cargo a week early and get out of Dodge."
"Enough, Jayne. Don't spit in its eye of the first good fortune we've had lately."
"I'd like to--"
"Shut it." Mal sounded oddly sympathetic. "Let's make some money."
Kaylee took a deep breath and clicked off the comm. "Seems the Cap'n's in a forgiving mood, but maybe we'd better take that thing apart 'fore he sees it."
River sighed. She felt very misunderstood.
River spent most of the rest of the day curled up in an out-of-the-way corner, talking to Goldie, but she could hear Simon worrying, so she came out when he was done eating dinner.
"Why did you build it, River?" Simon's face was pinched and anxious as he knelt by her bed.
"Moving faster means less trouble. Cap'n knows." River blinked at Simon, still not certain why he was so upset. "Besides, she asked me ever so nicely to visit her."
Hesitating, Simon finally asked, "Who?"
"Goldie. She doesn't have many friends."
"River, Goldie's a ship, she doesn't--What am I saying?" Simon put his head in his hands and River patted his shoulder. "Mei mei," he said plaintively, "can we just forget this ever happened?"
Shrugging, River stood on her head. "Goldie has an answer she wants me to question."
Simon sighed. "Don't you mean...never mind."
"It's 42," River said.
"What's the question?"
River turned her handstand into a cartwheel. "Maybe it has to do with the dolphins."
"I'm not even going to ask."