There was nothing to see.
The viewscreen showed nothing but black, black, black, endless unwavering eternal black, no more than a handful of stars to
interrupt it and that handful serving only to emphasize how very, very black it was. Out here where the stars were few and
far between, people were even fewer. Farther. They hadn't seen another ship in weeks- months, maybe. Jayne wasn't sure
He kept his head down when he went on the bridge, tried not to look out at the black. It didn't frighten him- exactly- but
the longer he looked at it the harder it got to keep from screaming. There was madness out there, in the spaces between stars.
Of course, there was madness in here as well. He flinched as hands descended on his shoulders, fingernails angled down to
dig into his flesh like claws. "Don't," he said, shrugging his shoulders and turning rapidly enough to toss her off. He
edged away from her, pressing his back against the bulkhead. "River, don't do that."
She smiled at him, tilting her head to the side expectantly, waiting to see if he'd raise his hand to her. The thought made
him shudder all over. He had- once- just after it became just the two of them on board. She'd done something stupid, something
crazy, and he'd backhanded her across the face just out of reflex. She'd stared up at him, eyes all wide and blank, tongue
darting out to lap the blood off her lips, and she'd laughed.
Then she disappeared for three days.
Of course she was still on the ship, he knew she was still on the ship, there was nowhere else she could be
but on the ship. But she was so little, so quiet, so good at tucking herself away in any little space she could find- like
a snake, like a rat, like...like the plague-germs and the ghosts they left behind- that he could never catch her. Three
days of wandering around the ship, calling out her name and hearing nothing but his own echo, seeing no one but his own pale
reflection on the walls.
In the present, standing too close to him on the bridge, she smiled wider, and he knew that she was remembering the same thing
he was, the afternoon he finally cracked, finally broke down and begged. Standing in the middle of the cargo bay, calling
out her name, making all kinds of wild promises if she'd just come out where he could see her...he hadn't cried. He
would never cry because of her. Not if they were stuck on this boat for a hundred gorram years.
That was too horrible to contemplate. He shuddered again, despite himself. She laughed.
"Poor Jayne," she said, reaching out to brush her hand across his face. "So lonely." He flinched back from her cool, pale
skin. She was bloodless, like a ghost like a Reaver like a corpse...
"Don't think about that," she said sharply, jerking her hand back like he'd burned her. "May they rest in peace." She made
an odd sign with her hand- a blessing? a curse? who the hell could tell with her?- and took a step backward. "Stop thinking
about it! Or I'll go away and leave you here forever."
Her cruellest threat, her favorite weapon, and God, he hated her for holding it over him. "Okay, okay, I ain't thinkin' about
it. Just don't...don't sneak up on me. Please."
She turned away, gesturing dismissively behind her. "Good boy." She walked over to the pilot's seat and danced her long pale
fingers over the controls. He stood back by the door and watched her for a moment. No explanation for how she could do that.
Simon had been right, way back on that first night they'd come aboard- girl could pick up anything given a few minutes of
study. Just like breathing. Jayne had watched a dozen pilots fly over his years in space, and he still could hardly keep
Serenity in a straight line. He could admit it, there in the empty dead quiet ship, watching her dance with the systems:
She was the reason they were still alive.
There was a ghost of Wash in the way she sat that chair, the way she faced down the controls. Like she'd taken some of his
essence into herself before he died. She had Kaylee in her, too- Jayne was better in the engine room than he was on the bridge,
but his skills were mostly confined to things that could be fixed by hitting them with a wrench. She could work magic with
the engine. He would stare at her in awe and she'd laugh out loud as she passed by. That was the most common sound on the
ship anymore- her eerie, mocking laughter.
"No ships," she remarked, squinting down at the scanner readouts. "We're alone." She glanced back over her shoulder at him
and smiled again. "Just the two of us."
Just the two of them. Last thing Mal did before he collapsed into his bunk was switch on the plague-beacon. Once that was
set, it couldn't be turned off for six months. A quarantine period, to burn the illness out of the ships. Give all the germs
time to die.
No station would let a plagued ship dock. Any ship that saw them coming would start shooting. That was how most plague victims
ended their misery; just keep flying at other ships till somebody got a lucky shot in, hit a fuel line and blew the whole
damn thing up. Jayne knew he was going crazy- not just because River was making more sense by the day- because he hadn't
argued when River had steered them away from systems where they might get detonated. Despite the slow-moving hell that was
life on Serenity these days, the fact was that he didn't want to die.
He watched River run her scans and adjust their course, and he thought about the bodies lined up nice and neat down in the
airlock- couldn't space 'em because the plague-beacon had sealed all the doors. Not even River could find a way to override
the Firefly's most basic security feature. They were stuck in this flying coffin till a counter in the computer rolled over
to its alloted number of days. And then what, Jayne? You got a plan this time?
"You promised," she said, not looking up from the controls. "Don't forget, you promised." She was so casual about it now,
reading his mind. Getting into his head. She slipped in and out of it as easy as the weird flimsy outfits she made herself
out of the clothes left behind in the bunks.
"I won't forget." Couldn't; he could still see Simon's face every time he closed his eyes. Pale, skeletal, the flesh melted
away; blood trickling down his face like tears from the burst blood vessels in his eyes. The bloody tears, that was the worst
part of Cressan fever- that was why on planets that had known it, little boys were taught not to cry. Or at least that's
what Jayne believed, why he didn't ever cry. "Take care of her, please," Simon gasping, blood coming from his mouth
as well as his eyes, and he didn't have more than a minute left, and the hand clinging to Jayne's own was light and weak as
paper. "Promise me you'll take care of her..."
Weren't right to refuse the dying their last requests. Jayne promised, and Simon died, and River stared at him over the body
with her haunting eyes. "It's sealed in blood," she'd said, pointing to the red streaks on Jayne's hands. "A curse
if you break it."
He believed in curses now. He believed in a lot of things that he didn't before, after spending these weeks on the ship with
River. Since Zoe's first cough, really- everyone else started getting sick within an hour, and Jayne never blinked wrong.
He'd seen Cressan as a boy, had lain in bed shaking and burning and bleeding from the eyes. Had fought it off and lived.
Simon said something about making a serum from his blood and saving the others, but there wasn't any time.
He and River had nursed the others while they died. Simon wanted River to stay locked up in a shuttle, to keep her safe from
the germs, but she'd just smiled. "I got my shots at school, silly," she'd told him, wiping the sweat from his forehead.
"Not all the needles were bad."
So Jayne lived because a burned-out backwater didn't have any medicine, and the toughest and meanest survived; and River lived
because some elite school and torture facility had the most cutting-edge meds in the 'verse. There was irony there, rich
enough that even Jayne could see it pretty clearly. But with corpses in the making all around him- corpses that used to be
his crewmates and maybe even his friends- there sure wasn't any humor.
"I told you to stop thinking about that," she said, turning her chair around and glaring at him. "Am I going to have to teach
you a lesson? Bad dog."
He leaned his head back against the wall. "Sorry."
"Don't want your sorry." She stood up and began crossing the bridge slowly, a predatory walk that made him shiver. Her eyes
were going wide and feral and he knew something was going to happen that he wasn't going to like.
"Oh, you'll like it," she chuckled, cutting through the space around him like a Fed's stun-gun blast, making the air shiver
with energy. She pressed her hands flat against his chest, pushing him back against the bulkhead. "You'll love it. I know
She rose up onto her tiptoes and gripped his face with both hands, and he wondered in the back of his mind who she was channelling,
which ghost possessed her, which member of the crew ever wanted to kiss him like that. Her tongue ground into his mouth,
pressing and relentless, and he gave in because if he didn't, she might crawl into his brain and make him, and the
illusion that he controlled his own body was the last one he had.
She broke off the kiss and smiled at him. "Who are you?" he whispered, staring into her glassy eyes. She chuckled, a low
dark masculine sound, and brought her knee up to grind gently against his crotch.
"Don't worry yourself, soldier," she said, forcing his head down to her level and running her tongue slowly along his jawline.
"There's a good lad." He closed his eyes, flinching, trying to see the man whose voice echoed through her instead of herself.
Being forced up against the bulkhead by Mal would have been a shock, might even have been fun, but it wouldn't have made his
stomach churn and his skin crawl like this did.
"River, don't," he whispered against her mouth, and she dug her fingernails into the back of his skull in warning.
"Don't fight me," she hissed back, her eyes too close to his, endless black pools of insanity and wisdom and scorn. "Don't
try to deny me. I'm all you have left."
She was right. He hated that fact, hated her, hated the plague and whatever planetside purchase had carried it onboard,
hated the others for dying, hated the ship's systems for sealing him up in this coffin with a madwoman and a crew of ghosts.
Hated himself for being such a coward, for finding this preferable to being dead or being alone.
"I'm all you have," she purred in his ear, sliding her thin little hands down the front of his trousers. "And if you don't
do just as I say, I'll go away and leave you forever. Poor little boy lost, all alone in the dark." She'd let Mal slip away,
back into the realm of the dead and the whirlwind in her brain, and he couldn't pretend it was anyone but her, a slip of a
girl he could break in half with one hand, laughing and groping him on Serenity's bridge in the dark.
"I'm not afraid of the dark anymore," she whispered, the motion of her hand settling into a steady rhythm that made him gasp
and grind his teeth in horrible pleasure. "But you are. Coward. Afraid of a little bit of dark."
"You are the dark," he heard himself whisper, clenching his fists at his sides and keeping his eyes shut as tightly as he
could. "It comes from you."
She laughed and kissed him again, pressing against his skin and his mind at the same time. He could feel her, the power of
her brain brushing up against his thoughts, his feelings, his self. "That's why I win," she said, grinding up against
him tighter. "Entropy, the descent toward darkness and chaos. In the end it was always going to be me."
"I hate you," he said, shuddering against the bulkhead and coming into her hand. She dipped her head down, pressing her face
against his shoulder like an intimate friend, a daughter, a lover.
"I know," she murmured into his neck. "But you'll learn. I'll be the last living thing you ever see, and you should love
me for it."
"Living?" he said, listening to the bleak laughter echoing on the bridge and realizing it was his own. "You call this living?"
And Serenity sailed on through the blackness between the stars.