You are alone alone alone and all that is left is the hunger you live in. Blood and bile and an open throat. (Utopia,"The Rapture of Nothing")
Utopia is a word that means perfection.
Security Officer Second Class Quinlan Jeremy Partridge liked tidiness. He liked smooth, uncluttered surfaces, the sting of antiseptic, the gleam of polished metal. He liked straight edges and sharp creases. He liked to be able to see a long way. For all these reasons, he liked space, the nice, solid black between stars, the vast emptiness like a desk cleaned off at the end of a shift. And he liked the cruiser Magellan, shiny and upright with its imposing towers and right angles that were deliberately non-aerodynamic because the city-ship was never going to land on a messy, dirt-covered, verminous planet or have to worry about wind-sheer. No resistance in space.
And for all these reasons, he felt itchy when he looked at the trash on the table, thrashing around in the grip of some kind of convulsion--if a convulsion were a terrier and the man were a chew toy--medics alternately trying to hold him down and leaping out of the way of his flailing arms. It wasn't possible that, through two layers of security glass, Quinlan Jeremy Partridge could actually smell the sweat on the man's battered body, or the blood that was exploding in viscous gouts from his mouth as he shouted, but the voice, the shrapnel of raspy, disjointed obscenity, was its own kind of pollution. The only saving grace was that most of what the man shouted was unintelligible. Wrinkling his nose, Partridge turned away and tugged at the wristband of first one dove grey glove and then the other. There was no use subjecting himself to this anymore. That man--he checked the dataflexi--Jayne Cobb, wasn't going to be good for much for a long time, if at all.
Mal said when we "rescued" that survivor on the colony ship that time that the only way to deal with watchin' what the Reavers done was to become one. And that poor sonofabitch sliced himself to dice and wore the blades in his skin and woulda eaten his own flesh maybe if we hadn't come along. Mal done him a kindness when he broke his neck. That's clear. That's true.
Zoe stood there with one foot in the shuttle, one still in Serenity. Wash didn't actually reach out and grab her to drag her into the shuttle with the rest of them, but he obviously wanted to; his hand kept curling into a fist around nothing and then opening wide, touching nothing.
"Gorramit," Jayne swore and pushed them both out of the way. "I'll stay." As he squeezed past Zoe's stiff body in the hatchway, he said gruffly, "I ain't no babysitter, anyway." He showed teeth. "That's woman's work."
Zoe didn't bother to kick his ass; she was still watching Mal. Mal nodded to her as Jayne stepped down onto the catwalk.
"Keep them safe. We'll collect you in no time."
Mal tilted his head to look around her at Wash. "If they catch sight of you--"
"They won't," Wash said, just like he believed it. His fist opened stiffly and then closed again around Zoe's arm. She let him pull her inside.
Mal walked away before the hatch had finished closing.
Partridge pulled up a chair and sat down, folding his gloved hands on the table. Across from him, Jayne Cobb sat slouched low in his chair with his long legs wide apart, taking up space like he owned it. But that bravado was a hard front to uphold: in addition to the dozens of lacerations, burns, and stitched-up stab wounds that were hidden by the hospital pajamas, the skin around his nose and mouth was red from frostbite, a wince closing up his bloodshot right eye whenever he moved. The fingers of his right hand were enclosed in an articulated wire frame he didn't have the credits to afford. Partridge could tell that the room was spinning, Cobb's balance thrown out of whack by the damage to his middle ear. His head tilted to the side, Cobb spread his good hand on the plexiglass of the table top, trying to steady the world, his fingertips white where he pressed them down hard, his face grey to the lips.
"Mr. Cobb, you are not bound by law. Nevertheless, you are obliged to answer my questions. Do you understand?"
Meeting his gaze steadily, Cobb lied, shouting, "I can't hear you." He jabbed a finger at his ear. "Bitched the ears." He grinned insolently and then turned and threw up on the interrogation room floor.
What did that one say? That little one with something sparky about the eyes. The rest of them, they was dead in the eyes, but that one, he had something different there, not just the regular crazy. Ha. That's a good one. You got the feeling when he turned those lamps on you that he was lighting you up on the inside so all your scars showed up as black scrawls on your skin. Them others, they was hungry for your meat. This one, he was hungry for something else.
What did he say?
Inara's shuttle burst out of its lock with a single shot of full thrusters and somersaulted backward through Serenity's wash, counting on the noise and flux to hide her for the ten seconds or so it would take her to duck into the moon's shadow. There were seven people in the shuttle, a short range shuttle with atmo for three days if they didn't talk much. Them that was unconscious would buy the rest some time. Maybe their chances would've been better in two shuttles, but it was better to be smaller and one shuttle was smaller than two. The shuttle somersaulted backward in silence while Serenity burned hard in the other direction, into the glare of sunrise on the moon's horizon.
On the nav screen, Magellan was a fading triangle drifting obliviously out of range, trailing a string of numbers that said, "Alliance property. Don't call us; We'll call you"; Acheron, that dead moon, was a circle with a serial number ending in 001, meaning no gorram good to nobody for nothing; and the other ship was a stuttering blip, unsteady in the nav-sat's sights on account of the radiation she was belching as she came around and lined up along Serenity's trajectory again, going hell bent for leather and almost on them already.
Three days was a gorram eternity and no damn time at all. Jayne said so.
Mal answered matter-of-factly, "We lose 'em and we make it back in less than three days," and turned away from the screen with a blank expression on his face, his eyes flat, nothing in them at all.
What did that one say? He talked and talked in that low, hissing voice, like a snake's. His eyes didn't have those vertical pupils like a regular reptile, but his tongue was forked. Stuck it out in front of my face and curled it so that I could see the two parts moving separately like that, the thing sliced down the middle sometime way back and healed since. So he talked, talked the whole time in that hissing voice with his forked tongue working in his mouth like something...infernal. Never really got the meaning of that before--it was just a curse word--but now I know what the curse is in it, that 'infernal' means a man forking his own tongue and using it to slice your soul up to bits.
What did he say?
Jayne leaned over Mal in the pilot's chair, one hand gripping the frame of the cockpit windows as he craned his neck up to get a good look at the underbelly of the ship. In barely legible lettering on the side was the ship's name: Utopia. Jayne appreciated the irony of that, proving that he wasn't as stupid as he liked to pretend. The fuselage was a standard 1080 Durkin cargo transport, but there'd been some retrofitting, two streaked and blackened 4040 boosters welded not too elegantly one on either side of the transport's pot belly. No wonder the bastards had been on them so fast. Didn't look like there was much in the way of radiation shielding there neither. Unconsciously, Jayne's free hand covered his jewels. At least the gorram freaks wouldn't be breeding. And the transport wasn't a big one. Maybe there weren't too many of them in there. There was a shudder and a squeal as the Reavers' boat grappled on at the dorsal hatch and they started to burn their way through.
"Wash would've lost 'em," Jayne observed.
"Could we save the performance assessment for never, please?" Mal answered, shoving him out of the way as he stood and swinging his rifle up over his shoulder. "Somebody's at the door and I have to go kill them."
"Be my guest." Jayne waved him on by and then followed, Vera solid and warm in his hands.
In the aft gangway, yellow and blue sparks were raining down around the hatch housing, bouncing on the grid floor before dying in the choking blue smoke as the plasma torches gnawed their way through the locking mechanism. Jayne couldn't hear the Reavers--it was impossible through eight inches of metal--but he could picture them, scrambling around inside the umbilical like rats waiting to swarm out as soon as the hatch popped, all teeth and crazy, beady eyes.
"Don't shoot into the umbilical," Mal warned him as they hunkered down on opposite sides of the corridor. "Puncture it and you'll depressurize the ship and I don't care to see my lungs today, got it?"
Spitting on a hopping spark, Jayne cursed quietly. "I ain't a rutting idiot." In his head, the Reavers were pressed up against the hatch in a solid, heaving mass, drooling and panting. He shook his head hard and checked Vera's charge again.
Then the rain of sparks stopped.
He could see Mal's whole body tighten up like a spring, but his face was still without expression as he looked up, the rifle cocked across his chest.
Then the hatch slid sideways into the housing and released a seething darkness.
By the time the shooting stopped, there were only five, maybe six of them left. That made eight bleeding out in the corridor under the hatch, plus Mal, with a hole in his gut, and Jayne, with a lump the size of an apple at the base of his skull and something wrong with his hands and his legs and pretty much every other part of him.
There is no distance without two points. One point is only itself, dimensionless. A singularity is a not-place. (Utopia, "Rapture of Nothing")
Utopia is a word that means noplace.
None of them stood upright like a man. Mostly they sort of scurried, sidewise like, sometimes with their hands down on the deck plating helping themselves along like monkeys or dogs. It was hard to keep track of them on account of the way they moved and how they seemed to suck the light out of Serenity, made her regular dimness seem lurid somehow, erratic.
Or maybe it was the bash to his brainpan that did it, like it made the galley floor rise up suddenly and then tilt back and back until Jayne felt like he was going over, toppling and helpless. His head fell backward and he could see his hands way far away bound around the wrists with optic cable or something. They looked familiar alright, but as far as he could tell they belonged to somebody else.
He was sitting there gaping at them when that little one came and snapped him across his adam's apple with the side of his hand. Jayne didn't dare look up anymore after that, no matter what the floor was doing.
"I got to go," Cobb said again, his eyes steady and empty on Partridge, his knee bouncing under the table. Partridge had to strain to understand what he was saying, and the officer's constant demands for repetitions were clearly rubbing Cobb the wrong way.
"Go where? Why?"
"I just do, is all." His hand closed up tight into a white-knuckled fist, the other one starting to follow suit, but he grimaced at the pain and flattened it out again. His eyes narrowing, he sat forward. "What did he say?" he asked, almost in a whisper.
In spite of himself, Partridge leaned away from the sudden flare of heat in those eyes. "What did who say?"
"I got to go," Cobb said vehemently, spittle flying from his lips.
"MAL?" Jayne bellowed.
After awhile, reedy and echoing from someplace down the passage near the bridge, "Yeah, Jayne."
Air woofed out of him with a little noise that he might've recognized as a sob of relief, if he had any way anymore of judging these things. That little one blinked at him and then went back to the book, turning pages fast, backward and forward. "They eatin' you yet?"
Something sounding strangled, a laugh maybe. "No... still tenderizing."
Jayne's laugh was genuine, coming from someplace deep that hadn't been cut yet, and it felt good. But then it kind of got away from him and scrambled up and up until it was more than a little hysterical and finally became a howl when that little one scurried up and slashed his knife across Jayne's chest, right over the faint scar River left that time with the butcher knife in the mess.
"Jayne?" Mal called.
That little one was whispering with his mouth right against Jayne's ear, those words like snakes crawling into his brain. He was straddling Jayne's legs, sitting there in his lap, humping him slowly, that tongue licking the sweat on his neck, the knife caressing his windpipe, the other hand splayed across his chest, palm against the blood. Jayne could feel the filth seeping into him, see himself turning black inside.
"Jayne," that little one whispered and wound his tongue into Jayne's ear. "Jayne."
I never knew they could read. Guess I just figured that their brains sort of went to mush once they took up eatin' folks. But somebody's gotta fly the ships, maintain 'em. Somebody's gotta have enough upstairs to be a predator. I guess I just never put animal-monster-men together with smarts, book-learning. Simon'd say the same about me, I guess. But that one, with the book, always turning the pages, backward, forward, looking for something, that tongue twisting around the words he was reading, making words into snakes. Inspiration. He was pulling the serpents out of the pages and they made him smile and every time he smiled he found another place on me, someplace new to open me, to let the snakes into me. The pages were smeared with blood. Some of it old and black from all the times before, all the folks he tasted before, his fingers on the pages there, writing in red. And now mine, from where he found all my scars and traced them open again with his knife. Un-healing me.
What did he say?
Deliberately folding his hands on the table, Partridge leaned forward again, reclaiming the space. His face was placid but his heart was starting to beat rapidly in his ears. He breathed through his nose and let the air smooth out his responses. Cobb was just another bit of flotsam in an endless stream of waste that swirled in from the Rim, like debris into a singularity. Of course his gravity was messed up, making him all off-kilter. That's what happened out here where nobody understood the necessity for rules, clean surfaces, and sharp creases. Cobb was just one among the thousands of dirt-world fleas the Alliance meant to iron out with the wrinkles. Run-of-the-mill crazy, two dozen for a bit.
But Partridge's heart was still running hot, regardless of his officially bland expression, because Cobb was big, and now even his cracked hand was curling up into a fist in spite of the frame, the padded prongs straining against his knuckles as they bent farther than they were designed to.
"I ain't bound, so you got to let me go if I want to," Cobb said, his voice rising, words slurred and imprecise.
The fingers of Partridge's left hand tightened around his right, but he kept his voice level. "Go in what, Mr. Cobb? There's no way we can let you leave in that ship. For one thing, it's a radiation hazard. Frankly, I don't know how you kept sailing in this quadrant without getting a citation."
Cobb's laugh was incredulous and ugly. "That ain't my ship, you donkey-humping ignoramus."
"Then whose is it?"
"I didn't get his name. I was too busy gettin'--" He stopped, his teeth in his tongue, his eyes on Partridge's, hollow and bright with that heat again. "I got people waitin' on me."
"On my gorram ship, I told you! On the ship! I got people! They was right there." Holding out his good hand, palm up, he indicated the air in front of him with a sharp jabbing gesture, his voice raspy with rage. "Right there, you ruttin' stupid son of a mother--"
"You were alone."
Cobb went perfectly still, his face blank. After a moment his hand fell to the tabletop and he blinked slowly. "What?"
"You were alone, Mr. Cobb," Partridge repeated, enunciating each word so that the ox could process it. "You. Were. Alone."
That's when Jayne Cobb went for his throat.
You have no face until you have a mirror. Until then, you are free. (Utopia, "The Rapture of Nothing")
Utopia is a word that means impossible.
Jayne woke up to find Kaylee looking at him. She was crouched down against the cupboard across from him in the galley, her knees almost touching his. Still in her mechanic's overalls, she was dirty, her hair hanging stringy over her face. There was a feeling of bloodiness about her, but Jayne couldn't make out where it was coming from.
"Does that hurt?" she asked, her little girl's eyes skating unsteadily up to his hands, which were still bound in cable and lashed to something up above, a light fixture, maybe. Whatever it was, it was solid, and he'd given up yanking on it a long time ago. When she looked back at him, she was crying, tears smearing the engine grease on her cheeks. So pale in the slippery yellow light. He wondered when the cozy, warm light of the mess had gone so ugly. Her lips were white. "It looks like it hurts a lot. They're all blotchy and a little bit blue in the fingers." She twisted one hand with the other.
He didn't look up to see if she was right, but he did look around for that little one. He could hear him, somewhere close, whispering. Actually, he could feel him, his hot stink all over Jayne's skin, mixing with the blood. Grunting, he shuddered and tried to get away from it, kicking his feet out, putting a good-sized dent in the cupboard beside Kaylee, but the feeling followed him.
"Shh, shh," Kaylee whispered soothingly. "Shh. Just settle a little. You're hurting yourself." Again, she looked up at his hands. He could feel the blood slick on his wrists where the cable was cutting into him. For a wild moment he imagined twisting his wrists hard enough and long enough so that maybe the cable would cut right through and he'd be free. "Don't even think about it," Kaylee admonished him.
He tried to ask her what she was doing here. He tried to tell her to hide. But words were snakes. He shut his mouth to keep them in.
"The Cap'n's not so good." Leaning forward, she put a hand on his leg for balance so she could peer around the end of the counter at the hatch to the forward corridor. He braced himself to take her weight, but her touch was light, almost not there. She was steady on her booted feet. "I think they're done playin' with him." Her voice was thick and wavering with sadness.
Jayne closed his eyes and focused on the soft touch of her fingers on his leg. Holding his breath, he listened carefully. He hadn't heard anything from Mal in he didn't know how long. But then, he'd been too busy to pay real good attention. Suddenly, that feeling, that stench, writhed on him again and he thrashed out. This time, Kaylee didn't hush him.
What did he say, when he put his mouth on mine and loosed the words into me? Snakes in the belly. Words filling me up until I sort of forgot where the inside was and the outside was. He opened up all the places I was hurt before, a whole helluva lot of places in a long life of hurt and scars, let the outside in, the inside out. Opened me up and made me a home for snakes. What did he write about me in that book?
Cobb stank of fear. Even more than the weight of him on his chest when he knocked Partridge out of his chair onto his back on the floor, even more than the grip of Cobb's good hand around his throat, this stench made Partridge gag. Cobb had barely two seconds to try to do his worst before the guards hauled him off and flattened him on his face on the deck, but those two seconds felt like forever, with that hot breath filling up Partridge's nostrils and mouth and the solid, vibrating rage of Cobb's muscled body pinning him down, the broken hand clanking violently in its frame against the deck plating beside Partridge's head, once, twice, three times, each time closer to Partridge's wide open, panicked left eye. The prongs of the frame snapped out of their housing and one of them lodged itself in the back of Cobb's hand. He didn't seem to notice. He was shouting something into Partridge's face, his mouth almost touching Partridge's lips. Something utterly unintelligible. Something obscene. A thin ribbon of spit roped down from his lips onto the dove grey collar of Partridge's uniform. And the eyes were the worst. Crazy. Like an animal. Like there was no man inside there at all.
"Jayne." He turned his head away from his name, but it followed him. "Jayne, you have to get up off your ass and do something." There was a long pause and he didn't bother to try to follow the voice anywhere. He let it go. The respite was temporary, though, and the voice prodded him again, a sharp point in a dull, red swirl of pain. "If you don't get up right now, the Captain's going to die. We're all going to die."
Gritting his teeth, he opened one eye. There was no-one there. Up bow-ways there were noises, scufflings and dry shriekings like rodents fighting over choice carrion. He shifted his weight a little, rolled onto his hip and craned his neck, but he couldn't see around the end of the counter.
Above him a low, steady voice said, "Don't make me kick your ass, Jayne Cobb, gorramit. Reavers are cuddly puppies compared to me, hear?"
He let his head fall back against the cupboard and looked up. His hands were still there, although only seeing was believing, since he couldn't feel them anymore. And there was a shadow, a long shadow on the panel at the end of the galley cupboards he leaned on, too tall to be that little one.
"Don't think I've forgotten that crack about women's work."
Obediently, Jayne pulled his feet in and got them under himself somehow, flexed his arms and hauled himself upright. As he stood unsteadily, his body now above his hands, the blood started to flow a little and he stifled a scream when pins and needles stabbed mercilessly through his fingers. He was lashed to a pipe running along the ceiling above the counter, but now the tension was released on the cable and he could get at the knots. Mostly, they were embedded in his skin, and he tasted his blood as he worked at them with his teeth. When he felt the knots slipping, he got a small thrill somewhere far off in his head where his self used to be. He paused to grin.
Zoe wasn't in the mess anymore, but River was sitting on the steps to the aft corridor with her knees drawn up inside her red sweater, her arms tucked in and her hands clasped tightly under her chin. For a fleeting moment, she smiled at him in that wan way of hers, but then her eyes shifted over his shoulder. She didn't have time to point before that little one slammed something heavy into Jayne's hands, once, twice, three times. River hid her face on her knees. Jayne fell into darkness.
Breeding. Words breed snakes breed words breed snakes breed--
"Reavers," Partridge spat at Security Officer Third Class Roger Nement, "are a myth. Nobody over the age of ten believes in Reavers."
Nement, much to Partridge's annoyance, didn't seem too cowed by his superior officer's skeptical ire. In fact, he raised a bushy eyebrow and followed that up with a one-shouldered shrug. "That's not what I've heard. Cruiser Da Gama met up with a colony ship about a year ago that had been taken by Reavers."
Partridge snorted, but Nement wasn't about to give up on a good story and raised his voice a little as Partridge turned away. "There was one survivor--or maybe a Reaver got left behind. My sister-in-law's a medic on Da Gama--"
"Nement--" Resisting the urge to grind his teeth, Partridge sighed. A low-grade headache was gripping the back of his skull.
"--and she said what she saw of the man, well, let's just say it was ugly." Nement aimed a finger at the scene framed by the observation window. "Ugly as that." He waited until Partridge had paced from one end of the observation gallery to the other, his fists balled behind his back, and then turned with him to watch the guards and a couple of orderlies heave the sedated prisoner onto an examination table. "If this big guy isn't one of them, I'd say he's spent some quality time with them."
Simon slid down against the cupboard until he was sitting on his haunches beside Jayne. Shaking his head ruefully, he sighed. "Well, that was a short-lived rebellion."
Jayne wanted to tell him to go stick his prissy dick up a goat, but of course he couldn't. The snakes were coiled on his tongue and even Simon didn't deserve that.
"However," Simon continued, lacing his hands together on his knees, "for once, being a dull-witted man-mountain with a penchant for self-abuse might actually come in handy right about now." Tilting his head back, he pointed with his chin at what was left of Jayne's hands. The left one was pretty much intact, but the right one was bent in all manner of unnatural ways. "Broken bones are very flexible. Of course, the pain will likely black you out, but, then again, you've got nothing but pain. A little more won't kill you." He met Jayne's eyes and his were sorrowful and compassionate. "But it could save all of us."
The pain did black Jayne out, more than once. But he did it, somehow. Simon watched for a little while, wincing in sympathy, but then Jayne forgot to notice him and he went away. Up in the forward corridor, the shrieking was dying down. Whatever the game was, the freaks seemed to be done playing it. Jayne didn't picture what they were doing with the Captain. He just concentrated on working his pulped, unnaturally flexible hand out of the restraining cable. It took four tries and three black-outs. Then he was free.
Nement was grinning. Leaning over the top of Partridge's data station, he put his round, swarthy face into Partridge's personal space and filled it up with that grin.
"What?" Partridge snapped, and kept his eyes on the screen.
"Somebody's here to collect your prisoner."
Partridge tried and failed to keep his back teeth from grinding. "I'm not done my investigation. There's the final medical report for one thing. Besides, he's bound by law for attacking an officer," he objected flatly and continued filling in the blanks on his report.
Coming around the end of the station, Nement settled down on the edge of the console. "Not anymore. Orders straight from the Lieutenant. Your pet Reaver has some powerful friends."
"As far as I can tell?" Nement's grin widened and showed far too many crooked teeth. There was no excuse for dental work like that in a civilized universe. "A preacher and a whore."
The first one was hardest. Not because the little freak struggled--he went down easy with a snapped neck--but because Jayne didn't want to touch him, couldn't imagine doing that voluntarily, smearing that stench on himself on purpose. But then Kaylee looked around the corner of the hatch, still seeming bloody, somehow, and scared and way too pale, and he threw his arm around the freak's neck and twisted his head with his good hand until there was a crunch and crumble that he felt all the way into his own bones.
He did it quiet.
The next one was easier, even though he--or maybe it was a she--swiped at Jayne with a knife. He blocked the blade with his forearm, because it wasn't like another cut was gonna drop him now, and took the knife away and plunged it into the freak too many times, enough to tire himself out, until there wasn't much left to stab at anymore.
The third was a birthday present, since he was already mostly dead, bits of him chewed off. Figuring the freak lost the game they was shrieking about before, Jayne put him out of his misery, even though it went against his sense of justice.
That left three.
"Mal," he whispered, pausing before he touched him to wipe blood off of his hand on the front of his t-shirt and managing only to make his hand more bloody. The snakes was swarming good, now, and he didn't want to let them out, but the whole place was swarming and he had to get Mal moving, so he risked it. "Mal, you got to get up and fight these bastards." He shook Mal's shoulder, making his head loll. "Gorramit, Mal, I didn't do all these heroics for you to be already dead."
He was working the knife through the cable that bound Mal's hands over his head--which was near impossible to do without two hands of his own--when they came at him, two from the front, one from behind, from up on the bridge. It was Mal who gave him the heads up, his one open eye widening suddenly, and Jayne ducked, mostly missing the blow from behind, taking the brunt of it on the shoulder instead of the head. Loose, but not moving too good, Mal managed to get out of the way, dragging himself up so he was sitting against the bulkhead. Jayne was making progress with those other two, but then that little one was suddenly glowering over Mal with a knife at his throat. Everything stopped moving. The light was slick and dirty. Mal opened his mouth to say something but nothing came out but air.
"The umbilical," Wash said. "Wild goose chase." He was behind Mal and that little one, sitting on the steps up to the bridge, pointing toward the aft gangway where Utopia was still coupled on Serenity's back. His pale blue eyes looked white and dead in the Reaver light. "A captain hates to lose a ship. Even Reavers."
Jayne stared at him stupidly. That little one leaned down and dragged that tongue slow and languorous like up the side of Mal's bloody face.
"Run!" Wash shouted.
Stumbling backward, Jayne headed for the umbilical, pausing to make sure they were following. He had two on his tail, scrambling along faster than rodents. They caught him on the ladder, but he kicked them off, heaving himself up one rung at a time with his good hand, his broken one clutched to his belly. Squirming through the hatch at the top of the umbilical, he rolled away and made it to the main controls before those two swarmed up through after him and grabbed him by the ankles and pulled him onto his back on the deck.
He heard Mal shouting his name, once, twice, three times, and then Serenity noticed that the umbilical was retracting and slammed the hatch shut.
Over that little one's shoulder, Jayne could see Serenity, first in the port window, then starboard, as Utopia barrel-rolled away.
That little one sat on his chest and leaned down close and whispered something into his face, his mouth almost touching Jayne's lips. A serpent roped from that little one's mouth down onto Jayne's neck. Jayne screamed.
I am a hole in the sky, a zero... a zero at the heart....
Utopia is a word that means dreaming.
Snapping the monitor on, Dr. Tokker leaned around it and watched the patient, or rather, prisoner, writhing in his restraints on the table on the other side of the security glass. Standing stiffly beside him, Partridge folded his gloved hands behind his back and didn't bother to hide his scowl of distaste. He didn't reach up to rub at his neck, the faint bruises there in the shape of Cobb's fingers.
"He was tortured," Tokker said bluntly, turning his washed-out blue eyes on Partridge, letting them settle on the bruises for a second before meeting the Security Officer's gaze.
Tokker's little bark of a laugh was humourless, the kind that jumped out of somebody when their brain was going places it didn't want to go, a warding-off sound. "Yes, I'm sure. These wounds, most of them anyway, didn't come from your run-of-the-mill brawl." His fingers skimmed the monitor with its facetted images of Jayne Cobb's injuries, neatly labeled and framed. Then he pulled his hand away and wiped it on the front of his lab coat. "This was deliberate, practically artistic. Enough cutting to cause pain but not enough to kill right away." Wincing a little, he swallowed hard and put his hand in his pocket, fisted. "That poor bastard must've howled like a dog."
"No doubt." Partridge couldn't keep the faint tone of satisfaction out of his voice and Tokker's expression darkened with disapproval. Looking away, Partridge demanded brusquely, "What about the frostbite? The middle ear damage. That's sudden decompression, right?"
"Yes, the air forces itself out of the lungs, the moisture in it freezing the soft tissues as it hits vacuum," Tokker confirmed, but didn't make the leap for him.
"So your 'poor bastard' blew them--whoever--into space."
"That's one explanation." Tokker paused and regarded Partridge with an assessing look. "His people corroborate the attack."
Partridge's nose wrinkled like he smelled something rotten. "A whore."
"Companion. And a shepherd."
"They weren't there. They don't know what went on." Partridge sighed. His hands were hot inside his gloves. "Well, there's no-one to corroborate a plea of self-defense."
"Or to challenge it."
Turning toward the window, they both watched Cobb straining against his bonds on the table. Tossing his head from side to side, he was talking in a continuous stream, barely pausing for breath. His words were slurred almost beyond recognition, partly because of the drugs and his agitation, but mostly because of the dozen stitches in his tongue.
"What are you saying?" Tokker asked him softly through the thick layers of security glass. "What did you do to deserve this?"
Snorting with impatience, Partridge turned to go, dismissing Tokker and Cobb and whores and Reavers. The room stank with pain and sympathy and it made his stomach churn.
Utopia opened her mouth and puked her atmo into space, letting the inside out, the outside in. His arms wrapped round a buckling strut, Jayne floated and watched the star between his feet, a clear, bright prick of light floating, too, alone in depthless black.
A zero... a zero at the heart....
"Mr. Cobb." A gentle voice prodded him to awareness. He turned away from the name, but it followed him. "Mr. Cobb, it's time for you to go home. Your people are here."
The light was too bright, too clean, and he tried to raise a hand to cover his eyes, but he couldn't because of the restraints. Something must have sparked up in his eyes, then, because the man leaning over him smiled tightly, but not unsympathetically, and said, "Just a second. We'll get these straps undone and you can sit up. I'm Dr. Tokker, by the way," he went on with strained lightness as he worked at the buckles. "I sewed up an awful lot of holes in you." Again, the tight smile. "And I have to say I'm not happy about sending you off without any medical supervision. But orders are orders."
"We'll take good care of him, Doctor," a soft, musical voice said.
Turning his head, his good hand shielding his eyes, Jayne squinted at the two figures waiting by the open doors.
He started to say, "I ain't seen you two yet," but closed his mouth before more than a few slushy syllables could escape.
Inara and Book exchanged glances and then looked to Tokker who shrugged.
"Once the sedation wears off, he'll be able to speak a little more clearly," he told them, then turned back to Jayne and patted him on the arm with paternally gentle awkwardness. "But you're going to have to be careful, be the strong silent type until those stitches dissolve."
Smiling a smile that wasn't at all tight, Book stepped up to the side of the bed and helped Jayne to sit. His hands were warm and large and capable. He smelled of cloves. "Sorry we took so long. Cap'n came to get us and we've been looking for you ever since."
"More than a week," Inara interjected, taking a hesitant step forward, her own gentle smile a thin mask for the ugly calculation of days she was doing in her head. Two days on Magellan. And before? He looked away from her eyes. She was draped in a deep red, shimmering sari with three gold bangles around her wrist. They rang softly together when she reached out to support him as he stood. Wincing, he lost himself for a moment in the sound of the silk whispering its folds across her skin, the sari's colour in motion like the light behind his eyes, but cleaner, brighter. He swayed and they steadied him.
"Aren't we lucky our Alliance friends found you first, patched you up for us," Book finished.
There was no use sleeping. There weren't any dreams that he wanted truck with, and the quiet was like a smothering, sodden blanket. So, he climbed up out of his quarters and headed for the mess, following voices. The light spilling out of the mess into the corridor was yellow and warm, not filthy like before, not slippery with blood. Stopping just outside the hatch, he leaned his shoulder on the bulkhead and listened with his eyes closed.
"He's so quiet," Kaylee said, her voice carrying like a bright skirl of light over the sound of running water. "I know he's never been what you'd call eloquent or anything, but...."
"Well, I've had fantasies about putting a muzzle on him someti--" Simon began and stopped suddenly. Jayne could picture Kaylee's glare. "It can't be easy talking with his tongue stitched up like that." Simon's voice was edged with disapproval. "I mean, stitches? What is this, the dark ages? What were they thinking? Two minutes with a proper mender and he'd be yapping like a d--" He ground to a halt again, probably against another glare. In spite of himself, Jayne grinned.
Pause. The water stopped running.
"Why would they do that?" Kaylee's whisper barely carried the question to Jayne in the corridor outside.
"No credits, no mender."
"I don't think she meant the doctors, Simon," Book corrected.
The hairs started to stand up on Jayne's arms and on the back of his neck. Inside him, something writhed.
"To cut him like that, on his tongue like that?"
The wavering in Kaylee's voice made the writhing worse. It crawled up his throat. Jayne remembered just in time to clamp his teeth down before it could get out.
"They didn't do it," River said. "Jayne did."
She cut Simon off, her voice matter-of-fact. "He did it to save us from the snakes."
The writhing was all over him, his jaws aching. He stumbled down the steps and stood there in the mess breathing through his nose like a ramping bull. They were all looking at him with wide eyes, like he was dangerous. His broken hand was balled up as far as it could go inside its frame.
Only River wasn't looking at him. Sitting at the table, her head bowed, her hair hanging down hiding her face, she was concentrating on something in her lap. She was turning pages, backward and forward.
Coming out of the galley, Book held out placating hands. "She found that out there," he pointed to the corridor behind Jayne. "It was in your affects, with your clothes. It must've fallen out of your bag."
"You are alone alone alone and all that is left is the hunger you live in. Blood and bile and an open throat," River read in a slow sing-song. "There is no distance without two points. One point is only itself, dimensionless. A singularity is a not-place." Raising her head, she met Jayne's eyes. "You have no face until you have a mirror. Until then, you are free," she recited without looking down.
"River--" Simon came to take the book from her, but she held fast, her eyes on Jayne, dark, too dark, and knowing everything.
"He put words in your head. He put words in your belly and they grew."
The writhing exploded from him, a wordless yell that wanted to become a sob, but he snapped his teeth down on it, on his tongue. He tasted blood. Book moved between him and River, his hands still held out, open and unthreatening. Behind the shepherd, Simon hovered near his sister, but she hunched away from him and still wouldn't give up the book.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw a blur of motion as Kaylee dashed out of the mess. He could hear her light, running footsteps heading for the bridge. In a few moments, endless ones in which he stared at River over Book's shoulder and she stared back, Mal was beside him, leaning heavily on Zoe. Pushing her away, he put a hesitant hand on Jayne's chest. Wash was there as well, too bright and cheerful in that shirt, the flowers on it shouting. Far off, in the corner of the mess, Inara was a haze of soft fabric and sweet fragrance, her arms around Kaylee.
"Jayne," Mal told him in that low, earnest voice that meant he wasn't going to take a vote or listen to objections or moderate a debate. "You got to stand down, now. You got to back off a little 'cause you're lookin' a mite scary to the womenfolk here."
"And the menfolk," Wash added.
"Them too," Mal agreed.
"You are a hole in the sky, a zero at the heart of nothing," River went on, softly, gently, inexorably, like there had been no interruption. "You are alone."
Stifled, the words on Jayne's tongue became a shuddering in his body.
River put the book on the table. Opening it, she put one hand flat on the inside of the cover. With the other she tore out the first page. Jayne wanted to say "no" but he couldn't open his mouth and Mal was there beside him, his hand firm in the middle of Jayne's chest, and Book was there, his hands open and offering something, and Simon's expression was a mixture of fear and compassion, and River was tearing more pages, throwing them into the middle of the table.
Looking up at him again, she pushed the book toward him. "That's what he said. But he told you lies."
Then Mal let him go, held the book down because Jayne had only one good hand, held it steady while Jayne ripped out the pages, one by one. They were warm and slick and they felt like flesh, but they were only paper and all the blood was dry. When he was done, Kaylee gathered them up and rolled them between her hands until they were a tight cylinder. He followed her back into the engine room and watched as she hunkered down and stretched out on her back to wriggle in under the main engine assembly. Under there, she opened the valve on the fuel cell shunt and stuffed the pages into it. Then, with the flat of her hand, she rammed the shunt home.
The pages turned to ashes and then less than ashes inside Serenity's burning heart.
Notes: This is one of those stories that makes me think that writing will probably kill me. Thanks to Otter for her Otteriffic beta.
Feedback welcomed at firstname.lastname@example.org.