Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Enjoy the First Chapter of Part Two of Firefly: Slingshot!


Chapter 11
The Prime Minister's Son

Chen Bao-Zhi glanced at the holoclock glowing softly over the nightstand. It was just past midnight.

   He’d retired at 10:30, but couldn’t sleep. He rarely went to bed so early, but for some reason tonight felt the need. His father, emerging into the hall from his stateroom, asked after him.

   “Just sleepy,” he murmured without looking at him. “Don’t know why. Goodnight, Father.”

   “Would you like me to send a Companion? You look unwell, son. Perhaps a nice massage and some tea ...”

   Bao-Zhi waved the suggestion away without answering. He made his way into the dark and got to his stateroom a minute later. The guards there saluted and opened the double doors. He went through without acknowledging them.

   “Companions,” he muttered. “Guards. A hallway half a goram mile long just to get to my goram ‘stateroom,’ which is the size of a goram warehouse. Is this what people think is the end-all be-all of existence?”

   He disrobed, muttering in disgust, and crawled under the covers.

   His bed was a sea of mattress, pillows, and silk. It could hold eight of him and still have room for another four Companions; and when he was a stupid teenager he’d had his share of fun in here, including a handful of unforgettable orgies.

   But he was no longer a teenager. He was twenty-four years old, the son of the Prime Minister, who was less a Prime Minister than an Emperor. For he, Bao-Zhi, was thought of as the heir to the Velvet Seat. In democracies there were no such things as heirs. Or thrones, no matter how velvety. Call them what the shee-niou huh choo-shung tza-jiao duh tzang-huo you will.

   He had taken a job to get away from it all, to work like any man should. To feel like he was contributing, like he was part of something beyond his hyperinsulated world of luxury and power. And because he was bored out of his skull.

   He wasn’t just gifted, according to his teachers. He was “special.” He mastered differential calculus by his eighth birthday and combinatoric nanobiology when he was eleven. He was a cellist of “unusual and extraordinary gifts” according to his music tutor. His paintings hung in galleries throughout the Central Planets. And his skill in the martial arts was “like a praying mantis alighting next to its prey in utter quiet, stealthy and swift, deadly and beautiful to behold,” or some such poetic nonsense according to his late master.

   He cared about none of those things. Not anymore. Not after meeting the Yuns. Not after realizing his part in the rapacious and cruel cancer that was the Allied Planetary Government. Not after deciding that he could no longer be a willing participant in its plans.

   He had never been close to his father. As for his mother, she passed suddenly when he was seven, and so he really didn’t get to know her. His father was content with his stable of thirty Companions and declared he had no intention of marrying again. Bao-Zhi, a small boy running around in a palace that could safely contain an Alliance dreadnought (and looking oddly like one, truth be told), found comfort in his nannies, of which he had four. They were all decent women, kind, caring, and stern in their discipline, which was surprisingly uniform considering how many there were.

   His father, Chen Qi-shi, Exalted Prime Minister, took the classic Great Man approach to the raising of his only child, which was to say at a Great Distance, with the occasional flourishes of affection, which were almost always in front of cameras and audiences. Bao-Zhi learned that love was something for the people. Greatness could not afford it.

   As the son of the Prime Minister, he had unusual access to many governmental agencies, including Defense. He met the Director and was immediately offered a job in research, which was what he wanted. Despite his insistence that he not be kowtowed to, it happened anyway. With that in mind, he insisted on his own office with all the protections a prime minister’s son should be afforded, and received them, including a secret way in and out of the building. His demands for privacy were met and fortified, then fortified again.

   He met the Yun a year later. Amazingly, the meeting didn’t come at work, but at home. It was one of his father’s Companions! She had studied him at length the past six years, she told him, and concluded he was safe to talk to. She introduced him to several Independence spies in various dummy careers and positions throughout Londinium. From there he learned, very gradually, of their plans.

   More than anything, he wanted to help.

   It was during this time that his work on Mass-Momentum Shielding (MMS or just MM) took off. Using basic tachyonic technology already present in modern interplanetary communications, and a random, chaotic energetic feedback loop that once doomed old-style craft like Fireflies and Stardrivers and the like to rare but catastrophic explosions (the companies that made both eventually went bankrupt from lawsuits), a proto-propulsive shield could be created, he theorized, that could render spacecraft extra speedy while also offering near-perfect protection against solar radiation. With some tweaking, it could conceivably make an attacking warship virtually invulnerable, given that the ship was traveling at a reasonable enough speed. In this case, reasonable wasn’t anything damning like a significant percentage of lightspeed, but, depending on the vessel’s mass, no more than five thousand kilometers per second, which most interplanetary commercial craft achieved every single day!

   His discovery, as well as discoveries he made concerning tech plans forwarded to him on the Yuns’ distant Lens, put him in a very serious bind. Because of his esteemed rank and previous demands for privacy, his work was protected under multiple layers of firewalls. Nobody wanted to mess with the prime minister’s son, whom everyone believed above reproach. But the resources he was using were eating up more and more CPU, and eventually someone would notice. And indeed, someone did. From the Ministry of Security.

   Desperate for help, and sickened with thoughts of what the Alliance would do with such technology, he spoke to the Yun, who came back several weeks later with fairly astonishing software from that mysterious world that could intelligently rewrite data, scramble other data, and hide the remainder in such a way that would “normalize” his research to look well within the range of what the rank-and-file were doing, given that his work was being spied upon.

   In exchange, he shared his preliminary findings with them. It wasn’t total, as the information file was far too unwieldy and therefore virtually unsecurable, but enough to give them a taste of what he was up to without alerting the Ministry.

   The Yuns replied several months later. They wanted everything he had, and were willing to pay an obscene amount of money for it. Through the Yun Companion, who provided the nano-byte-encrypted quanta (NBE-Q) wagon, he learned a little of what they wanted to do with the technology, and how he could assist. However, if he wanted to contribute, he would have to travel to Lichungyun and bring all of his research with him.

   He wanted that. He wanted to escape this horrible half-existence and leave forever. And he wanted to fight this government, even if by doing so meant fighting his father.

   There was no way to get the sum total of the research to the Yuns by waving it. Even if hypersecured, even if totally quanta-encrypted, the potential risk was too great. So too by smuggling it out via the Yun Companion in small bits.

   Who would be crazy enough to try to get him to Lichungyun?

   The Companion (her name was Riley) had an idea. She knew another Companion, this one way out on the Rim some-goram-where. This Companion, unbelievably enough, cavorted with outlaws and lived onboard, even more unbelievably, a Firefly. She told him she’d make contacts to see if this woman, name of Inara Serra, could be located.

   He didn’t hear back for many weeks. Riley informed him that her contacts told her that the crew of this Firefly was the very one that had nearly brought down the government, that its captain, one Malcolm Reynolds, was an embittered ex-sergeant for the Independence and an unsung war hero. His dossier was spotty, to put it charitably; but one name kept showing up in conjunction with him—a two-bit hoodlum named Badger who occasionally gave him work, which mainly consisted of smuggling between border planets.

   “Find this Badger,” he ordered her. “I have a strong feeling we’ll find the captain of this Firefly. Do you think he’s lunatic enough to take such an assignment?”

   “You’ve read his file,” she snorted. “It comes down to cash and not just a small opportunity to stick a well-deserved finger into the eye of the Alliance. He’ll take it.”

   This Badger individual was contacted, and a meeting arranged on, of all places, Meridian.

   Bao-Zhi explained the trip to his father with a watertight lie. “The Csu-shan Temple is there, Father. I wish to deepen my studies. There is word of a martial master there of no equal. I would like to meet him.”

   His father, visibly pleased, patted his shoulder. “Excellent, excellent. Perhaps you will return to your studies and give up this obsession with contributing like some low-level functionary. I think it’s a splendid idea.”

   It was impossible for him to travel without a tremendous entourage. With a full military escort, he left on an early Wednesday morning for the distant world circling the Blue Sun. The trip would take seventeen days.

   He worried about his work back home, that it was secured enough. There had been a recent spike in activity from the Ministry of Security. Had they found something to tag him with?

   Riley tried comforting him. She offered sex; he refused. He had become close to her, but as a brother would a sister.

   He arranged to meet with the master with only himself and her attending. Security traveling ahead would see to it that the meeting room was bug-free, as was standard practice for all visiting dignitaries. This thief, this two-bit hoodlum, Badger, was thoroughly vetted to make sure he wasn’t playing both sides of the fence. Probability models said he wasn’t. He had no interest in politics.

   The master was apprised of the true purpose of the meeting well in advance, and agreed to its terms. Upon meeting him, the master bowed and left the room. Riley went to a far corner and sat on a cushion and waited silently. Badger, entering by a hidden door, came in next. He was dressed in a scarlet suit, was clean-shaven, and wore a fashionable cape. He approached and bowed.

   “Your Excellency,” he said, rising, his accent thick. “This is quite an honor.”

   Bao-Zhi had no interest in dawdling. “I am interested in your ... services, Mr. Badger.”

   “I am interested, Your Highness, that you’re interested.”

   “Do you have a last name, sir?”

   Badger grinned. “I’d’a thought the Alliance would know it.”

   “They do. I don’t. Would you mind?”

   Badger caught the subtext, and nodded thoughtfully.

   “Smythe,” he said, and bowed again. “Badger Smythe, Sire.”

   Bao-Zhi grinned. “Try again.”

   Badger’s own grin became more lopsided. “Fair enough. It would be a trivial matter for you to learn it anyway. Me given name is Reece O’Sullivan, Your Highness.”

   “If it isn’t too personal, Mr. O’Sullivan, where did ‘Badger’ come from?”

   “You are kind, Sire. ‘Badger’? Me clients probably think it comes from the animal: aggressive, hidden, resourceful, if necessary downright nasty. But it’s from me mother. When she was dyin’ she told me to stop badgerin’ her to take it easy and rest. It stuck.”

   Bao-Zhi went to an altar and examined it. “Mr. O’Sullivan, I’m looking for someone you regularly do business with.”

   “And who would that be, My Lord?”

   “He goes by Malcolm Reynolds.”

   He turned. Badger was studying him carefully, his eyes narrowed considerably, his grin diminished by half.

   “I’ve had little contact with him, Sire. I have no idea of his whereabouts. It’s been at least two years, I reckon.”

   “But you could find him, correct?”

   “So could you, Sire.”

   “I think we understand each other, Mr. O’Sullivan ...”

   “Badger, please, Your Highness.”

   “Badger, I’m sure you know I could do great harm—or great good—for your ... organization. Do you agree?”

   “That I do. But if you’d allow, Sire, I’m willin’ to guess you’d rather the ‘great harm’ option not be pursued. Too much ... shall we say ... visibility to those you’re eager to stay hidden from?”

   “Quite true, quite true. A standard operation against your operation would alert the Ministry of Security. They would wonder why I was even remotely involved with you or your associates. No matter how I tried to hide my hand in it, the risk that my involvement might be discovered makes such a distasteful course of action ... problematic. I find it a very depressing commentary about humanity that doing great good doesn’t suffer nearly the same visibility issues.”

   Badger rubbed his chin. “Agreed, Sire. If I may, Your Highness, would it be too soon to discuss compensation?”

   “Two point six billion. Untraceable.”

   That wiped the grin clean off the thief’s face. His mouth fell open despite a clownish attempt not to let it. He swallowed hard. “If ye don’t mind tellin’, S-Sire ... how in goram’s bloody name can two point six billion be untraceable?

   Bao-Zhi walked a slow circle around him. “The people I’m working for ... they’ve been slowly infiltrating the Alliance for many years now. Decades, in fact. They are very clever. And before you ask another query, let me tell you: that money, should you earn it, will be spent, at least a significant percentage of it, assisting me. You will still end up with more than you can imagine, not to worry ...”

   “By finding Malcolm Reynolds ...”

   “Yes. And by helping his crew, his ship, and the Independents.”


   Badger’s face had gone white.

   “Here’s your first task,” said Bao-Zhi. He reached into his pocket and produced a wagon. He grabbed Badger’s wrist and brought it up and gently laid it in his palm, then closed his fingers over it. Badger’s expression hadn’t changed.

   “You’re going on a long trip. You’re going to give this to my contact. While traveling you’re going to order your organization’s ‘members’ or whatever you call them to find Malcolm Reynolds and contact him. Give him a job. Nothing too expensive, nothing too showy, nothing too dangerous. Put it on a border planet—obviously. If you return, you’re going to know exactly what I want you to do and what I expect of you, and what I want you to say to Mr. Reynolds.”

   “If ... I get back, Your Highness?”

   Bao-Zhi still had a hold of his fist, and gave it a martial squeeze. Badger’s face melted into pain. “That’s right, Mr. O’Sullivan. If. If you do not prove yourself worthy, you won’t be returning. If you do not in fact prove indispensable ... well, now, I have plenty of contacts who ... let’s just say they’re ... professionals. Untraceable, nonstandard professionals. Nongovernmental. The Ministry would never suspect me, no matter how deep they dug. I assume we understand each other?”

   “Yes ... yes, Sire,” rasped Badger. “We do indeed.”

   Bao-Zhi eased up, but did not let go. He gave his hand a couple reassuring pats.

   “If you prove worthy, you will be set for life, and a thousand thousand lives after that.”

   Badger smiled nervously. “And if I respectfully decline your kind offer, Your Highness?”

   Bao-Zhi reached into his pocket and produced a brown vial. He held it up between them. “Then I’ll find someone else, and your memory of this meeting will be wiped. But I believe I know you, Badger, my good thieving fellow. I know you better than you think I do. And not because I read your file. In fact I purposely didn’t read your file. I know you, Mr. O’Sullivan, because in many ways I am you. I too have had to stay hidden, have often had to get what I need in life via less visible or legal means. I too have had to be aggressive at times, even brutal. I know you, Mr. O’Sullivan. And I know beyond the craving for money, deep, deep down, you crave something else even more. I know that. I can see it behind your eyes, for I too am a badger. This mission, this trip, will give that something to you, upcoming challenges notwithstanding. That I can promise.”

He came back to the present and glanced again at the holoclock. It was now 1:32.

   “Well, shit on this,” he muttered, and threw the covers off and swung his legs over the bed and stood. He was nude; he went to a chair in a lightless corner where he’d dumped his clothes and dressed.

   A knock at the door.

   “No thanks,” he grumbled.

   Several of the household’s Companions were intuitives. They must’ve sensed his frustration, that he had gotten up.

   He marched to the door and opened it. The knocker and any of her sisters she may have brought along were absent. The guards waited stiffly.

   He strode between them, making his way to the east kitchen to get a bite, but stopped.

   He went to the wall instead and tapped it. “Riley? You up?”

   A few seconds passed. “Yes, Sire. I’m up.”

   “I can’t sleep. Take a walk with me?”

   “Give me five minutes.”

   “I’ll be in the east kitchen,” he grumbled, and switched off.

   The kitchen staff was on call around the clock, of course. He had Earlys, who had been there since he was an infant, make him a turkey sandwich, which he wolfed down. She took his plate, bowed, and left the room. Riley walked in soon after.

   She was a beautiful Companion, no doubt about it, with lovely brown hair falling in loose, playful curls over soft shoulders, huge almond eyes, and a pixie mouth. “Ready when you are, My Lord.”

   It was impossible to leave the White House without an armed escort. Dressed in cloaking technology, the Palace Secret Police were virtually invisible. The only sense one got they were there was when one of them passed in front of a bright street light. The light would distort and split for a moment as it diffracted around the cloaking, giving the sense one was walking among rainbow ghosts.

   The city was busy tonight, as it was every night. Londinium never slept. The parties and people, all A-list, all the time, meandered up and down the streets and danced in the bars and clinked fine crystal stemware in the eateries.

   Riley walked beside him, silent. This wasn’t the first time he’d taken a late-night stroll, and she had learned long since that when he did it was because he was troubled and would talk only if he felt the need.

   He really did think of her as a sister. She was two years older than him, but looked eight years younger. She was three inches shorter, but carried herself like a princess, making him think she was taller than she actually was.

   He went to return to the Palace, but she grabbed his arm.

   He gazed at her. “Yes?”

   “I didn’t want to share this with you tonight, Sire,” she said quietly, making an obvious effort not to be heard by the secret police, “because I thought you wouldn’t sleep if I did, but here we are anyway, walking, because you couldn’t sleep. If I didn’t know you better, Your Highness, I’d be astonished.”

   She pulled a Pearpad out of her cloak pocket and pressed a button on it, held it up to the sky, then handed it to him.

   “Take a look,” she whispered.

   He glanced at her, confused, then at the Pearpad. He gazed at it, then glanced hurriedly into the air.

   The ship descending towards Landing Pad 4A near city center was no more than a tiny blazing star against a dusty swath of real ones as its retro-thrusters braked against Londinium’s gravity. But the Pearpad had identified it anyway.

   He glanced back down at the screen:

Transport Class
Identity: Serenity
Make: Firefly
Captain: Malcolm Reynolds
ID CONF: A88093-CARGO33k
ETA: 6.67 minutes

   He stared with a growing smile, then at Riley, who smiled back.

   His ride out of here was landing. Tonight. In fact, right now.