A year ago she was still there. Pain and tests and needles and screaming, one of many, strapped to cold hard metal and forced to perceive so much more than she ever had before. Tonight, of all nights, it seems most appropriate to remember that – that she was only one of many. That maybe, just maybe, she was the only one lucky enough to have someone outside that cared enough to get her out.
Right now it’s just past midnight, by the supposedly impartial clock of Alliance Standard Time. Witching hour. Witch. Post holer, for digging holes, for posts. Irrelevant. She pushes the thought away, aims her mind’s focus back along its original path.
She’s getting better at that.
It’s just past midnight, which means more of the whispers and voices should soon come floating on the wind, stronger than they were even yesterday. The voice have been building, gathering, for nearly two weeks now, each night the voices more present, more insistent than the last. And tonight they will come again, she’s certain of it. Because, by the calendars fallen into disuse when man left Earth-that-Was, the day ahead is unusual. The Chinese calendar would call it the fifteenth day of the seventh month of the year 5216. The Gregorian calendar would name it August 21st, 2518.
But River knows it best as a holiday from her childhood. Today is the Ghost Festival, when spirits and hungry ghosts emerge from the lower world to visit those still living.
She remembers celebrating it when she was younger. Standing beside Simon and her parents, the fragrance of burning incense in the air. The dishes of fine repasts – meat and vegetables in rich sauces beside freshly cooked rice; cups of sweet wine and pungent tea; fruits of all kinds but peaches most of all; freshly crisped wontons and spring rolls; bao like New Year’s treats hidden inside containers of warm soft dough – all left out to show good will towards the wandering souls. Chimes and drums, sounding in the distance. Watching the lanterns and candles flow past on the cold, black river that borders the Tam estate.
The fact that she can better differentiate then from now is what allows River the belief that Simon may be right. Perhaps now she is getting better, albeit slowly. Simon had managed, through much trial and experimentation, to concoct a hybrid cocktail of drugs which briefly restored her to a state of coherent near-lucidity. So short a span, an hour at most, but it had been long enough. Enough to aid in examination of the data he’d collected on Ariel, enough to offer the intuitive shortcuts that her mind had once been able to wield like a master swordsman with a finely crafted blade. Enough for the two of them together to devise a treatment regimen that is slowly expanding her lucid periods. First an hour or two, then a night’s worth of clarity, then most of a day…
It holds great promise. It gives her a measure of control over what she perceives. No longer a raging torrent far too easy to drown in. More akin to standing on a rock beside the rushing waters with a bucket at hand, able to take from the flow when she wishes without being caught up in the waves of dissonant chaos. If the side effects make her a little colder, a little more apt to be caught up in the analysis of what is at hand, it’s a small price to pay.
And yet, in truth, sometimes River wishes she wasn’t getting better. If she stayed the same as she had been, she wouldn’t have to remember the truth outside of the occasional nightmare or trance. She wouldn’t have to remember the faces and the names, the way that one walked down the halls with confidence in his stride, or the way this one cocked her head and let her auburn hair shade her eyes. She wouldn’t have to remember their voices.
Every one of them still echoes in her head, fluttering around like moths drawn to a lamp, even with the brief stability the medicines offer. They hardly ever leave her alone, but before the new treatments they were merely another piece of the background noise she tried so hard to push away. Now, they’re one of the few things she can’t stop hearing. They first manifested, she thinks, in the final days at the Academy, when the technicians’ thoughts were filled with apprehension and desperate analyses. In the night she heard, once and twice and too many more than she wants to recall (forty-seven, a cold voice in her mind recites), the muffled reports of shots in the distance cutting off the desperate, pleading cries of the others who had not demonstrated success as well as she had. But in her head, they never truly fell silent.
She’s not the only one among the crew haunted by ghosts. Simply the one that can perceive those with a bond to each of the people aboard Serenity. Tonight, those who were once touched by the bonds of emotion and shared history will come visiting, to mill about in ones and cliques and clusters, their spectral hands coaxing memories from those still alive.
Now, River sits on the metal floor of Serenity’s bridge, waiting, listening for their approach. Outside the windows, the sky spreads itself like an icy ebon sea dusted with the cold, floating brilliance of an uncountable number of stars and moons and planets, all singing their own quiet melodies. She smiles, soft and thoughtful, at the sight, so reminiscent of the dark waters carrying the candles and lanterns around the Tam estate. Somehow that seems a fitting comparison, even though now they hardly move and she is the one who floats past in the night. In one hand she holds the smoldering stick of incense she asked Inara for three days ago, sweetening the dry taste of recycled ship’s air. In front of her is a small plate, filled with what offerings she was able to gather from the galley. No peaches, of course, not here and now.
But perhaps it will do.
There’s a soft, sussurating murmur above the eternal hum of air circulating through the ship’s ventilation. To River, it sounds like nothing so much as the wind from her childhood that teased the branches of the weeping willows along the water’s edge. And with it come the voices, a vast host of a thousand and more, far beyond the ones that are hers alone, and it’s only because of the stability she’s regained in recent days that she can do anything but run and hide in the corner, hands over ears and eyes and trying not to drown in the sudden rush.
Breathe. Just breathe, she tells herself.
And slowly, slowly, the tide of voices ebbs.
She tentatively unclenches muscles which had gone rigid with tension. Opens her eyes again. Takes up the incense from where she dropped it when the flood came. Unfolds herself gracefully from where she’d sat, hugging her knees. Sees those who stand around her, and greets them with silent obeisance and a gentle smile she hopes doesn’t look forced. Then she takes the incense and goes to walk Serenity’s paths, to see how the others in the crew are managing.
Kaylee has only a few, whose voices aren’t particularly insistent. Her cousin, face pale and lips blue from where the cold waters of the lake kissed him too long. A much-loved grandmother that Kaylee wishes she had been kinder to. Tracy’s the one who sits closest, beside where she sleeps with mind full of gears and linkages and wiring. He runs intangible fingers through her hair the way a lover might, making dreaming Kaylee wonder about what-ifs and if-onlys.
River often finds herself curious about what might have been, as well as what might yet be. So many threads to touch here, to weave together and form a stronger pattern. Kaylee’s is bright gold, pretty and soft and never tarnished.
Jayne is accompanied by more, but most of them merely skitter past nearby, scarcely seen or heeded. Most of them, like the man with the big black top hat on Whitefall, Jayne only knew over the barrel of a gun. But sitting by his side, eyes bright with adoration, is the mudder teen that threw himself in the way of Stitch’s shotgun blast. Jayne doesn’t understand why the thought of the boy still gnaws away inside him, though one day he might.
River thinks she might be able help with that. Jayne doesn’t yet realize he could be an integral part of the whole, one enduring grey-black thread woven among many of varied colors. His could be vital, if only she can untwine the tangles and snarls inside him.
Zoe has two dozen and change, standing in and around and outside the bunk she shares with her husband. Old friends, comrades-in-arms, lost long ago in the conflicts for Du-Khang or Tikopolous or Serenity Valley. The visitors keep their distance, most of the time – not because Zoe doesn’t hear or recall them to this day, but because Wash insulates her spirit with his. He and she are already like threads interwoven, together forming a stronger cord, and River warms herself with the depth of the emotion between them. Wash is the reason that Zoe can smile and laugh and feel, even with all she’s lost.
River envies them their closeness, knowing she can only bask in the heat of their bond for so long before she has to pull away. But she can take the thread of that warmth with her, and pass it to others who lie in cool isolation. She sidesteps the spirits who mill in the hall and moves on.
Mal’s file past like soldiers in column marching to their next rally point. Dozens, scores, hundreds. He has lost so many, and wonders with each day that passes if he might have saved more and why he’s not among them. She knows that if he allowed himself to truly consider all that’s come to pass, he might collapse beneath the burden… and so he hides his feelings away inside a cold iron shell, locked and chained, warded by razorwire and well camouflaged. He fears that none of it means anything now, after so much has been lost, and so is split between pushing the people nearby away and keeping them as close as he can. Anxiety etches away inside of him, that those he’s gathered here will someday be lost just like all the others, so he holds them at arm’s length but safeguards them all as best he can.
River wonders at that as she descends the stairs between the bridge and the kitchen, the metal grid like cold water against the soles of her feet. She believes there’s a way to slip inside all that defense, find the fragile thread within and weave it into the pattern that it might grow stronger. It will take time, but time is the one thing she now has aplenty.
Inara lies on the border between sleeping and wakefulness, knees to her chest. A translucent Nandi sits on the bed beside her, gaze cycling between the Companion and where the captain’s cabin is, pensive smile on her face. Around the room’s periphery are children and adolescents, the ones she couldn’t save, who weren’t old enough to save themselves as Nandi did. Not talented enough to receive the Guild’s blessing, shuffled off to indentured servitude for borderworld barons or worse. Inara did all that she could, made enemies in the process, left Sihnon and all that those there had caused behind. But the spirits of those she believes she’s failed, most of them little more than names and pictures in a file, come to her regardless.
River thinks that Inara’s thread is bronze – soft gleaming copper and malleable tin, forged into strong, durable beauty by pressure and time. It could form a work of art all by itself, but twined with others shares both its strength and appearance and is reinforced in turn.
Simon dozes on a chair in the painfully white infirmary, head pillowed on hands and Cortex medical printouts. All his ghosts are distant, most of them of amicable demeanor. Patients he wasn’t able to save, but who know that he made every effort within his ability and some that weren’t. Around her brother is a bubble where no spirits walk. At least, none that will come visiting tonight. Instead, his mind’s eye sees half a dozen Rivers where none exist – her as a brilliant toddler, a willowy adolescent, a tangle-haired youth with skinned knees and dirt-smudged hands, a graceful young woman about to be married. All those Rivers he thinks are dead and lost forever.
But she’s not lost, only changed. Her thread is altered in weft and hue, not broken. His is pale and slender still, weakened by uncertainty and the weight of expectations. It might find its strength again if she can only make him see how much he has already done for her, help him to find a reason for living beyond an endless, hopeless quest to make her what she was.
Book is still awake. Praying. She can feel the sharp, desperate hope focused within him from all the way down the passenger dorm’s corridor, but doesn’t dare go any closer. The way is choked by more spirits than she can count. Men. Women. Youths. Children. All of them stand like grim sentinels outside the Shepherd’s door, staring towards him. She knows that Book tries to do what he can to make amends for the things he has done. It’s a part of why he stays here, on the periphery of the Alliance he once believed himself so deeply bound to. But within him hangs the hollow anxiety that he can never redeem himself, an emptiness that he tries to chase away with good deeds and rediscovered faith.
Book’s thread is a line of bright steel, cold and hard, sheathed within aged leather worn velvet-soft. Notched by hard use, yet still strong enough to serve as support and structure. Interlace it among the others, she thinks, and it could pass its qualities to those that lack it. Already it has had some effect on Jayne, even without her efforts.
The spirits’ voices whisper of patterns and looms, of weaves and bindings. So many threads, and so many creations River might help make of them. A tapestry, to inspire the minds and hearts of those who see its example. A rope, to lift those who have fallen, or bind the hands of the wicked, or choke the life from criminals and corrupt alike. Fabric for a multi-colored blanket, that might warm those left to freeze by uncaring oligarchies. A banner, behind which an army might rally.
Slowly, River retraces her path back to Serenity’s bridge, mind filled with possibilities. She sinks cross-legged to the cool metal, gazes out into the cold, calming blackness, listens to the voices swirling around her.