River grabs the airlock doors with both hands and refuses to budge.
“River,” Simon says, “don’t you want to go back to Serenity?”
River shakes her head, her eyes wild.
Mal says, “Best move her along, Doc. Reavers could come back any minute now.”
“No!” River says. “We’re safer here with all the ghosts.” Simon pries her fingers off the door and pins one arm to her side. “Please don’t make me, Simon. Please.”
Simon manages to drag her through the airlock to Serenity, and Mal punches the doors closed.
“You’ll be sorry,” River says.
The next morning, Kaylee discovers Inara slumped on the cargo bay floor at the bottom of the metal staircase, her neck twisted at an impossible angle. Her ankle is sprained, and Simon can’t find any signs of foul play.
“It was an accident,” Simon says. “She twisted her ankle and fell down the stairs. I’m sorry, Mal.”
Mal says, “No. Inara was the most graceful woman from here to Sihnon. No way she fell down the stairs.” Mal reaches out to touch her face, hand trembling. “How can she be dead?” he says, and his voice breaks on the last word.
Simon looks away. Comforting the bereaved has never been easy for him, and he doesn’t think Mal would accept comfort from him anyway.
From behind them, River says, “No mercy. No mercy. Like cattle to the slaughter.”
“You want to be shutting her up, Doctor,” Mal says, his voice now completely devoid of emotion.
Simon takes River to the room they share and watches her pace back and forth, growing more and more agitated until he eventually has to sedate her. He supposes the shock of seeing all those dead settlers strung up across the cargo transport ceiling was enough to set River off without the unexpected death of someone they were beginning to think of as a friend.
When Book dies, no one tries to suggest his death is an accident. Mal finds him in the mess, his throat slashed and his fingers missing.
“Should’ve stayed with the ghosts,” River says. “He’ll pick us off one by one. No mercy.”
“What the rutting hell are you on about, girl? Who’s gonna pick us off? Reavers?” Jayne says. “You talking about Reavers?”
“Oh, god,” Kaylee says. “A stowaway Reaver.”
“I don’t see how,” Wash says. “Unless it walked right through the airlock while no one was looking.”
Jayne says, “And who was looking while you were on the bridge and we were all humping cargo back to Serenity?”
No one speaks for a long moment. Across the table, Zoe draws her gun, and Simon feels like he ought to be holding a weapon, too.
“This is what we’re going to do,” Mal says. “Zoe, you keep watch over everyone, and me and Jayne will search the ship.”
Two hours later, they’ve found nothing. “There ain’t no place on this boat for a gorram Reaver to hide,” Mal says. “We’ve been in every nook and cranny on Serenity. Ain’t nobody here but us.”
“So what are you saying?” Wash says. “That one of us killed Shepherd Book? Inara, too?”
Mal doesn’t answer, but he looks at River, his lips set in a grim line.
“Wait a minute!” Simon says. “River had nothing to do with this. Shepherd Book was murdered in the last three hours, and I haven’t left River’s side today.”
“Then who?” Mal says. “She’s the only one spouting ‘I told you so’ and you know she can be violent.”
Wash says, “You’re not seriously suggesting that the ninety pound child is a murderer?”
Mal slams his hands down on the table. “Inara is dead. Shepherd Book is dead. Everybody stays in this room until we suss out who killed them.”
“Don’t worry,” River says. “He’ll come.”
He does, later that night, his face sliced to pieces and sewed back together haphazardly, metal pins shoved through both his cheeks. Zoe puts a bullet between his eyes before he can even cross the threshold, and he dies twitching on the galley floor.
Mal compulsively searches the ship for days until he finds the Reaver’s bolt-hole, a space nearly too small for a man to cram himself into and one that Mal hadn’t known about before. It would have remained a mystery if not for the smell of Shepherd Book’s fingers rotting in a neat pile on the floor.
Serenity never seems quite the same to Simon afterward. Kaylee doesn’t smile as much as she used to, and Zoe and Wash don’t tease each other at dinner anymore. Mal walks through his ship like it’s a battlefield, constantly looking over one shoulder and barely speaking to anyone. Even Jayne is more subdued than Simon has ever seen him.
Simon wonders if they all feel the same sense of unease he does, if they all feel like something is waiting for them just beyond their peripheral vision. The scent of Inara’s perfume lingers in the oddest places, and sometimes in the quiet hours of the night, Simon swears he can hear Shepherd Book praying in his room.
More often than not, Simon dreams that Inara and the shepherd are the survivors of the attack and that all the rest of them are dead, their bodies decaying in pieces down in that hole. He wakes night after night sweating, his sheets twisted up over his head like a shroud and River watching him silently from her bunk.
“We’re just one more ship full of ghosts,” Simon thinks, “out here on the raggedy edge.”