Matter is illusion: the void is all that exists. River takes Serenity dancing through the darkness from one thin web of energy to another. It frightens her, how easy it would be to dissolve it all, release the forces binding them together, return them to the void. She tries to tell this to Mal. "Hey," he says, "there will be no releasing of forces here on Serenity. You get that, River?"
Her hand is illusion, the wall is illusion, appearance covering nothingness. She weeps, because one cannot pass through the other, no matter how often she tries; the tears are illusion too. She holds the formulae in her mind -- water, salt, proteins, enzymes -- but at the heart of all lies emptiness. She tries to explain this to Simon. "Mei mei," he says, "we're not an illusion; we're here. I'm here."
She thinks that he is wrong about that.
* * *
There is no here and no there, and she is everywhere. She cannot yet take Serenity with her while she slips into the emptiness; her body follows her mind through cold until brightness draws her in; she pauses to wonder whether light is also illusion, and something that shouldn't exist brushes her mind.
Scent and heat and a thousand different sounds greet her: insects, she thinks, small animals, rotting vegetation, water. She could sit here, eyes still closed, cataloging each new thing, imagining that each is real and solid, pretending that she is not still in the void.
"Power you have," a voice says. "Wise you are not."
She opens her eyes to a gnome, wrinkled and green and small, like a tiny green version of shou-lao, leaning on a stick and watching her. "Are you illusion, too?" she asks it.
"Hmpf," says the gnome. "Not wise at all." It turns and walks away from her; when River stands she can feel her feet squishing into the damp ground. Leaves brush her head as she walks around the trees in her path; small insects buzz against her ears as she follows the hobbling gnome. There's dirt between her toes now and a twig in her hair, as if the world was trying to prove itself to her.
She catches up with the gnome at a small round building. "I'm not real," she confides.
"All is not illusion," it tells her. "Learn you must." It invites her in and gives her a bowl of things grown on this very planet; she takes each piece out, one by one, to memorize texture, shape, color, before she tastes it. Earth-that-was had this wealth, she thinks. Maybe it was easier to believe in things, when there were so many of them.
* * *
She lands Serenity on Charon, a dry moon. She stands on the ramp and tastes the thin air; the few dry plants have shallow roots and the sun is pale in the sky. She doesn't need to close her eyes to see what it looked like before humans came: dust and dark airlessness.
"Done woolgathering?" Mal asks on his way past her.
Now the moon is a pale copy of something she cannot imagine. The town will be the same as all the others: half-empty stores, horses in the street, quick deals in a saloon. Each new world is formed from the constituent parts of the last, settled by ghosts and memories. There's nothing real here.
She follows him into the mule.
* * *
The gnome has a name: Yoda. Yoda sits in a basket on her back as she runs: she runs until she cannot run any more, and they shelter from the drizzle among the roots of a giant tree. Insects crawl in the dirt and a snake winds through the low branches. "What do you see?" Yoda asks her.
"Emptiness," she says. He taps her with his cane and makes her run all the way back to his hut. Mud sticks to her feet and splashes on her legs.
Tonight's bowl is full of fungus; she picks a piece out and stares at the intricate black ribs on the underside. "This doesn't exist," she says, "because this time doesn't exist. If I were here, I couldn't be there, too."
"Part of this you know," Yoda tells her. "Only now there is, and only here. Slip between the folds of time you can." Two lizards chase each other across the ceiling. "Watch you do," he says. "See you cannot."
Back on Serenity, she sits in her bunk and brushes dried mud from her calves.
* * *
Plotting a course is no good if the ship won't fly; River sits with Kaylee and watches the engines turn, around and around and around. Kaylee shows her all the parts, one by one, and tells her what each one does, so that River can see how they all work together to turn Serenity into a little ball of life.
River remembers what happened when the engine stopped turning, how cold space reached its fingers into the ship and only Mal could bear to stay with her. Was that an illusion or the failure of an illusion? Or maybe something else, something she doesn't know how to name. The engine room is warm and smells of oil and rubber and Kaylee, and River wonders whether Yoda likes strawberries too.
* * *
"Now will you say that real these are not?" Yoda asks. She's too busy laughing to answer: she ducks one rock and jumps up and as she lands another hits her in the arm. It stings. Yoda sits on a log, stones of all sizes floating around his head. "When see truly you can, blindfolded you will do this."
River stops to consider this, and a stone strikes her cheek. "How?" Without even illusion to guide her, wouldn't she be lost?
"What causes the stone to stay up? Into the heart of it must you look."
She reaches out to take one of the rocks from the air: molecules dancing through emptiness in her palm. One is stone, one is air, one is skin; each is nothing but positive and negative arrayed in patterns of movement. "Are they the same thing or not?"
"Separate they are," Yoda says, "but connected each thing is as well. The Force flows through them all; binds them together it does."
"Even the rocks?"
"Strongest it is in what lives," he says. "Strongest of all in what thinks and feels and loves."
"Serenity is made of ceramics, plastics and metals." The stone lifts from her palm and floats, spinning, above it. "But she isn't dead."
Yoda's smile is a crescent of yellow teeth in his green face. "Learning you are, yes. All things are one: this knew you even when believe you did not. The Force it is which makes it so."
She thinks about this. "I don't think my friends would like it here," she says. "It's very marshy. It would be hard to land Serenity."
Yoda's smile grows wider.
* * *
River rearranges Wash's toys along the console. Simon had a book about dinosaurs once; she thinks he has forgotten all about it. The dinosaurs would like Yoda's planet, all the warm swamps and the plants to eat.
Footsteps on the stairs make her still her hands. "Not still thinking of blowing things apart today, are you?" Mal asks.
She shakes her head. "Binding us," she says. "Serenity holds us together."
He settles into the chair next to hers. "That's right," he says. "We take care of her, and she'll take care of us." He's quiet for a little while. "So you reckon we all exist now? I don't mind saying that you had your brother frightened there."
She looks out through the glass at the stars casting their webs of light out into space. "Where love is, emptiness cannot exist."
"Hunh," Mal says. "Think I'll take that for a yes."
Serenity dances forward toward the light.
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