There are two hundred and six bones in the adult body, a thousand interlocking pieces that fit together simultaneously better and worse than any puzzle human can create. River can remember looking at the glossy pictures in her brother’s imager, can remember running her finger along the more detailed surface and always being vaguely disatisfied that the texture was so artificial. Back then she didn’t know what bone felt like, but certainly, she thought, it was nothing like plastic. Now she knows there’s a harder rougher edge to the feeling, like the presence of life — or at least its memory.
A standard Firefly has over three thousand individual pieces that fit together like a skeleton. Metal and plastic and ceramic and she could fold them all between her two hands and find that she’d created something new. She runs her palms across Serenity’s sides and listens to the song the ship sings — nine pieces of melody and an underlying harmony that ties them all together. It’s not meant for human voices, and not even entirely for human ears, but it’s for the people she shelters in her belly through the Black, and even if they’re not consciously aware, they know it.
Of course the loudest thread is the captain; River thinks that maybe someday instead of dying, he will be the one who truly melts into Serenity; he’ll lie down and let the ship draw him to her breast, and then his blood and bones will become fuel and parts, so that the two cannot be separated.
She puts her palm against the side of the ship and follows its lines and its songs, and there’s Kaylee, who is working on some part of the engine with her hair yanked back and her fingers black to the knuckles with grease. She smiles briefly at River and says something — hey, honey, you all right? — but goes back to her work when River does not answer: Kaylee likes voices but understands silence, which is more than many people. River climbs into the hammock stretched in the corner of the engine room and rocks gently, with her palms braced against the rust-streaked walls.
“That’s a pretty song, River,” Kaylee says, and River realizes she has been humming a poor adaption of Serenity’s song, in the closest that a human voice can approximate of its component parts. This is Kaylee’s theme, which is bright and bubbling with deeper grinding notes, because all of the ship knows Kaylee’s light touch, and all of the ship responds to her. “You make it up yourself?”
River tucks her bony knees to her chest. Here are sixty bones right here, in the curve from her hip to the ends of her toes, but they all come together to make two complete limbs. Tibula, fibula, femur, and they all move so smoothly under her skin. “Serenity made it up,” she says. “For you.”
“For me?” Kaylee looks around in surprise, like she expects a face for her to meet. She has never questioned, even before River, that there was soul to this machine beyond its component parts, not when she spends so much of her life here, in the depths of Serenity’s mechanical heart. “Well, that’s awful sweet of her. Think I can learn it?”
Surprised, River considers. She has never tried singing the new, fragile songs that Serenity has only recently begun to compose, the two that are for herself and for Simon. They are works in progress, and River herself is never quite sure if she’ll wake up as a girl or as a million pieces, so certainly Serenity cannot have put everything together just yet.
“It’s not the full song,” she says. “It’s too deep. The tonal harmonics alone are beyond the register of human hearing, let alone the capacity of the human voice. … I don’t think she’ll mind if you try, though.”
She puts her fingers together and breathes deeply and tilts her head just so, because you can’t directly listen to Serenity’s voice: you have to be just a little off, a little at an angle, for this to work, because she’s got more to her than rules and regulations and her several thousand component parts. “Listen.”
Kaylee puts down her wrench and imitates River’s position. She is a grease-spattered angel with messy brown hair, and Serenity sighs, whispering around them. After a moment, River hums again, her own pale imitation, and though her voice is strained and high she feels she can almost match the song for once, and Kaylee sits very still, breathing through a half-open mouth and listening.
River doesn’t know how long she sings, but when she stops her knees are numb from kneeling in seiza for so long and her neck feels stiff from the angle. Kaylee looks entranced, looks surprised, looks thoughtful.
“It might take me a while to learn somethin’ pretty as that,” she says. “Think she’ll mind me practicin’?”
“You don’t need to,” River says and rocks back, putting her palms flat against the walls. Serenity hums back, a visceral body vibration and it’s there in the pit of her stomach. Kaylee, Kaylee, the ship sighs, and maybe River’s thread isn’t the only one always changing. “Whatever you do, it’ll be right.”