River lifts her head just enough to glance over the half-collapsed wall, tightening her grip on the axe and sword that have traveled with her halfway across the 'verse. She calculates angles and velocities in her mind, the shambling gait of the incoming entities and the fact that they seem to track mainly based on sound, and kicks a fallen chunk of brick far enough away to draw their attention to the clatter.
Like reavers, they move en masse toward the intrusion; like reavers made up of hunger instead of rage. There is a lack in them deep down at the root, though, a lack they strive to fill without even as much understanding as the violent husks she'd faced on Mr. Universe's moon. It makes River's gorge rise just to be near their poisoned energy. No minds to read, not even the voiceless ghosts of Miranda; someone has made them into things, and that thought makes her feet itch to begin their dance.
She flies into motion with a swirl of skirt and a slash of blade, neatly parting one jiāng shī's hair down to the bridge of its nose, then twists to disengage and thrusts her other weapon through a second's eye socket. It is an inefficient method of killing, but they sold the Lassiter long ago and percussive weapons would be even more counterproductive here. She will have to procure a more primitive projectile weapon; until then, or until they find the parts to fix Serenity, this will have to do.
Her hair whips into her eyes as she whirls to carve a third, fourth, fifth; it already runs stinking with their black, putrid blood. She will have to shower thoroughly before setting foot back aboard the ship; Kaylee will never forgive her otherwise. The sixth is just out of reach, but there's only one more within audible distance; she calculates the risks again, then throws the axe just as her arm reaches its full extension and turns to take three running steps up the trunk of a convenient tree. The sixth falls; her ankles soar out of reach of the seventh, now crawling toward her and snapping its teeth. The world reverses itself, then again; she drops down on its back and stabs her sword downward, pinning its rotting skull to the leaf mould below.
A shudder passes through her as its energy fizzles, quenched for the first time since its death, then dissipates, the white noise filter of the things' existence vanishing from her awareness. In its place, a sharp prickling sensation runs up the back of her neck: she's being watched. By a human, this time. Filtered and winnowed by scarcity, competition, and despair into a mindset that tastes of several souls back home-- whoever the watcher is, they're no doubt more dangerous than these dumb monsters.
River pulls her sword free with a casual grunt, then strides swiftly over to her axe and works it free from a dead thing's spine, carefully keeping the crumbling brick wall between herself and the observer as she does so. It shields her, but not willingly; she can feel the echoes of the house that used to stand there, a ghostly structure radiating the warmth and love of its residents, and it resents all other feet that tread here, even hers.
Unbelonging. Unfamily. And she belongs there even less than most. Despite the Operative's surrender, he'd only been one man; an anomaly, not to be listened to by his Alliance overseers. Not to be obeyed. River had spent hours with Serenity's computers, struggling to remember the locations of other Parliament secrets the crew might turn into an exit strategy, and finally found a facility constructed around one of the weird gravity anomalies endemic to a five-star cluster system. The old man who'd remembered it had thought of it as unstable, off limits, to be studied; they'd found out why first hand when a warship had shown up and Mal's attempts to pilot them away had scraped too close to the anomaly itself.
As an exit, the results of that event leave something to be desired. This is Earth-that-Was; by Mal's estimates, and River's own attempts to source position after they'd found themselves suddenly spinning in an unfamiliar atmosphere, they're an impossible number of light-years and at least five centuries away from home. They've now seen first-hand what happened when Earth could no longer sustain our numbers, we were so many; the only thing left to wonder at is that anyone made it to the stars in the first place afterward.
A thought sparks in the back of River's mind at that-- the theory of causality loops, the technology required for sublight interstellar travel, the lack of surviving infrastructure juxtaposed against the sudden introduction of skilled hands and minds, āiyā but Mal is going to hate that idea-- but she lets it fizzle for now as the sense of observer hardens and moves forward.
River can't not feel, can't push anything to the back of her mind after what the doctors did to her, but she can choose to increase her focus on external stimuli; slowly but surely, she's learning the art of making lemonade. She briefly swipes the weapons clean against her skirt, and holds them at the ready as she turns.
Her visitor is a woman: one as shaped by the crucible of her environment as River had been by the Academy. She's a few shades darker than Zoë, and just as diamond-hardened inside, the facets of her mind as sharp and ready for action as the blade held at an oblique angle in front of her. It's a katana; a weapon much more elegant than the ones in River's hands, but it's obvious that it's seen just as much death. It sucks at River's attention like the void that had pulled Serenity through space, honed like its owner into an instrument of unbeing against the reaver-prototoypes.
A memory floats up at that thought: They will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. The origins of humanity's exodus might not be in any schoolbook River knows, but someone had remembered these things. Her gorge rises again; she concentrates on the other woman's prickly wariness and the bite of rough hilts in her palms and lowers her weapons a fraction more as the stranger steps closer, rounding one end of the wall.
"You're good with those," she opens the conversation with the obvious, inclining her head toward River.
"Good is an arbitrary measurement," River replies dryly, not bothering to reconfigure her reaction into something 'polite'. This seems like a woman who would take that more as a threat than an effort to seem otherwise, and it is an effort, one she's always relieved to be able to shed. "Like 'pretty'. Like 'nice'. Would you describe yourself as good with your sword?"
The stranger seems taken mildly aback, eyebrows rising. "Tolerable, I suppose," she says, warily.
"Tolerable: acceptable, reasonable," River muses. "It is only reasonable to know how to defend oneself in a world like this."
"I don't think reason's got much to do with anything anymore," the other woman snorts, reassessing River from top to toe. Then she sheaths the katana over her shoulder in one smooth move and lowers her hands to a ready position, open but still capable of reacting in a moment if she must.
When reason breaks, the strong survive. River has reason to know that first-hand. But however wary the other woman sounds, she's obviously curious; and if Serenity's presence here is a recursive paradox, they'll need contact with other sane members of the species eventually. "My Captain says he'd rather be right than reasonable. But I don't think they're necessarily exclusionary principles," she hints.
"Your Captain." The stranger tilts her head to one side, dreadlocked hair slipping over her shoulder. "You've got people, then? A camp?"
A possible army of threats, not just one; River can feel her wariness tighten back up a few notches. She defuses it as best she can by securing her own weapons to her belt, relaxing her hands in the same posture as the other's, peaceful but ready.
"Do you?" she replies, despite already knowing the answer. There's a lot of leather in that outfit, but not one smear or smudge that doesn't look fresh. If there's any world in which cleanliness is next thing to godliness, this world is probably as close as it gets. The other woman must know the answer to her own question, too; it's obviously meant to feel her out, not gather information.
"Fair enough." A nod accents the reply. "No point drawing this out, then. My name's Michonne."
"Michonne," River shapes her mouth around the name, teaching her tongue the syllables. "I'm River."
"River, then." Michonne gives her a grim smile. "How many walkers have you killed? More than just the ones I saw you kill, I mean."
Walkers? River glances down at the silenced dead and thinks about their first excursion outside the ship after their emergency landing, the way they'd nearly lost Zoë so soon after losing Book and Wash. She, Jayne and Mal had wasted a lot of bullets before figuring out how to make them stay down, and it's only luck that Zoë was injured by a sharp piece of metal and not the teeth of one of their attackers when a knot of them tackled her to the floor. Simon's thoughts had gone dark and jagged with horror after examining one of the corpses, and insisted on burning every single one of them before warning the crew in grave tones that he will personally lobotomize the first to get bitten by a dead man walking.
"Every one that came near me," she answers with a twitch of her shoulders. "How many have you killed?"
Michonne ignores the question and continues grimly, thoughts slipping into a groove worn like a catechism. "How many people?"
That's a trickier question. Do reavers count as people? Most of the crew don't think so; but most of the crew didn't spend several years as object rather than person. River can't help but see them as people-made-objects, too; every single one still screaming. "Too many," she says, voice gone suddenly thick in her throat.
Michonne's eyes narrow, and her thoughts go still and intense as she asks the third question. "Why?"
River turns her head away as tears boil up to run down her cheeks. She can't not feel it. She can't, but that doesn't mean she has to share it. "Because they were trying to kill my family."
"Fair enough," Michonne says again, voice softer this time; quilted fabric sheathing the steel. "If your people need a place. If you need anything, or have anything to trade...."
She leaves the invitation there; River glances toward her again, and gives her a tight, wry smile. "We'll look for you," she says. "And you'll ask them the questions, too."
Michonne nods slowly. "I can't promise my people won't try to find you first," she says, carefully. "People out here... they aren't all that common. Or all that friendly."
Mal won't like that either; but they were always going to run into someone, eventually. "Tell them to be careful; they might be surprised at what they find," she replies.
Then she turns on her heel, and moves; the quicker she leaves the other woman's line of sight, the faster she can report to the others. Her search can wait.
Michonne's swearing fades into the distance behind her, frustrated jabs of thought that remind River of nothing so much as Jayne, and she smirks at the thought of that meeting.
She doesn't like this planet and the dead things that inhabit it, and doesn't think she ever will, but at least there will be compensations, too. She unsheathes her sword again as she heads for Serenity, and hums a martial verse under her breath as she runs.