, Londinium Cardiff
It wasn’t the same kind of fear that woke her this time.
But it was fear—wasn’t it?
She danced around and through Reavers. She calculated their fury like it was fifth-grade arithmetic. Why couldn’t others see how easy it was? That was the trick! Calculate! With the dance came tranquility, almost like meditation. The insane violence trying to find a way inside her lethal metal perimeter, swinging up then down, over and around, muted to minor exponents in the continuously evolving or devolving differential equations of their collective rage. She solved them oftentimes with her eyes closed, and their flesh cleaved away from their bones and their blood spattered almost artfully on the walls, and she danced and danced and danced.
And then ... and then ...
She hadn’t woken screaming. Not this time. She woke quite normally, as though from a normal nightmare, or what she remembered normal nightmares feeling like. Her heart thumped madly in her chest, her body tingling all over.
Serenity’s mains were whining in the familiar rising crescendo they did just before the ship landed.
Here on Londinium. Here on the very planet that sent every hateful blue glove after her.
Was that the cause of her fear?
This was worse even than that. And yet ... better.
She was solving Reavers, dancing, dancing, blood, mathematics ... and then she was kissing ...
Electric. Passionate. He held her face in both his hands and pressed full against her, but she couldn’t see him! She couldn’t solve him! She wanted to withdraw, but something erupted inside her and she kissed him back.
She’d never kissed a boy in her entire life. She was nineteen years old now, and had thought of it so often that she wondered if she were going insane.
Jayne grunted in the safe space within her imagination: “What—you mean more insane?”
—her brother jumping in to defend her: “And yet how many times has she saved you, I wonder?”
—and then the captain: “I’ve gotta admit, she has saved our bacon a few times ...”
“They love you, you know. Even if they have a hard time showing it sometimes.”
She glanced in the darkened corner. There was a large beanbag chair she’d bought on Lilac half a year ago. The voice had come from there.
“I told you not to come in here.”
“I felt your fear. I thought it important enough to come in. If you want, I’ll leave.”
She was dressed in a T-shirt and undies, the latter of which weren’t visible from the dark corner. She pulled her covers higher and held up. “It’s ... okay. Am I in trouble?”
She could hear the beanbag chair shift, and then a grunt as the body it belonged to came forward into the light. Just his face appeared out of the dark. He looked very serious.
“I’m afraid you are, River,” said
Fireflies came with two showers: heated, recycled water that one could stand under for no more than six minutes before an automatic switch cut the stream off. She quickly washed her hair, then leaned against the stall and let the hot water rush over her in the short time remaining.
She couldn’t get the dream out of her head. And now, here on Londinium, she was expected to dress and join the rest of the crew. They were going to stay at the Darynio—one of New Cardiff’s many five-star hotels. Serenity, in the meantime, was going to have its cargo offloaded by Independents posing as
citizens, and then it was going into dry dock to prepare it for its long trip
to Lichungyun. That worried her.
She turned and put her hand against the synthetic porcelain just before the shower snapped off. “You’ll be okay; I promise. I’m going to miss you.”
Serenity had given her a home, and she’d die to protect her.
She stepped out of the stall and wrapped herself in a towel.
He kissed me like he knew everything about me.
What if blue gloves are waiting beyond the airlock?
Something profound was changing within her. And the catalyst of that change was right here on Londinium. Was that what
Wash was warning her
about? How could it not be?
Robon met them in the cargo hold. They had all dressed in their “swell rags,” as Mal put it, more of which they would be buying, on Badger’s dime, in the month to come. That was how long Serenity’s upgrades were going to take.
“A month,” repeated Zoe once Robon reminded them again. “Will our inoculations last that long?”
“They should,” said Simon, who, River thought, looked much like he did when he was younger—before Serenity, before the Academy. She hurt for him again, for all he gave up to rescue her, and the frantic years following as they kept just ahead of the law. But if he was feeling anguish over any of that, which used to be the norm, it was largely gone now.
Kaylee, who looked as beautiful as a young wife could, held his hand. Simon was happy. She could feel it from him, though, just as in her dream, her ability to “solve” him—to read him—seemed to be short-circuiting. It wasn’t as effortless as before. She tried reading the others; they too weren’t as easy as before.
What the wuh duh ma huh tah duh fong kwong duh wai shung was going on?
“I have enhanced the general formula,” continued her brother. “We won’t have any issues. I’m assuming the inoculations we’ll receive are just outside this door?”
Robon, adjusting his jacket, shook his head. “We’ll get ours at the hotel. By the way, Doctor, we’ve studied your enhancements. We didn’t think to add anthrilipeadipan with a basx l-epiflozaine suspension matrix. Quite incisive.”
“Thanks,” said Simon without much enthusiasm. Kaylee, however, gave his hand an enthusiastic squeeze, which prompted River to think, Make that one from me too. He’s pretty awesome—even if he’s always got his head stuck in the hornet’s nest of future concerns.
“Well and good,” grumbled Jayne as Lenore stood next to him, “but every goram scope in the verse now knows we’re here, and ain’t we tryin’ to hide? If I remember right, Inara’s got a whole buncha angry Companion bosses on the lookout for her.”
Clarissa Ramudy had made it very public that her exalted choice for Priestess of House Madrassa had been kidnapped from right under her nose, and had yelled at the news cameras, “No one, no one is going to get away with that!”
The news was so momentous that it was linked to a sudden downturn in the stock market. Kidnapping a Companion, especially one tagged to be so influential in future Companion matters, especially political ones, was obviously a big deal to
Alliance mucky-mucks and the
nobility. The Ramudy residence, after all, boasted state-of-the-art security
and some of the finest private security personnel in the Verse!
Robon, who had pulled double duty every day since meeting them, offered: “We’ve got some luck on our side, as I told some of you last night. Fireflies may not be manufactured anymore, but the superwealthy often use them to conduct transactions off-world that they don’t want official eyes to notice. Serenity’s transponder has been altered to mask its true identity. There are stronger devices here that can see through that new encryption, to be sure, and that concerns me. But most don’t have that capability. The fact that we’ve landed and haven’t already been boarded speaks to the success of our efforts. But I have no doubt that a hangar-to-hangar search won’t soon be initiated. We’ll be cutting it close, no doubt about it. As for your physical appearances, those of you who were spotted on Bellerophon, we’ve had your broadcast likenesses altered by the same encryption. Again, it isn’t a perfect solution, but it is unlikely that we’ll be interacting with anyone with stronger tech.”
“Remind me again how this all works?” asked Inara, blinking.
“It means that the inoculations we received, and the one we’re about to get, will, by virtue of the doctor’s and the Independent’s muckery, confuse folks who look at us, and will dissuade them from reporting us. Is that basically it?” said Zoe, glancing impatiently at Robon, who smiled.
“Yes, that’s basically it,” he responded.
“Good. Can we get going?” she demanded.
“There are two limos waiting for us,” Robon said. “Follow me.” He punched the large red console button, and the ramp descended.
The large space Serenity was parked in was dimly lighted. A wide, tall garage-type door was a good hundred feet away and edged with bright sunlight. They followed him to it.
“The limos will take us to the Darynio,” he said as they approached. “We’ve arranged for rooms to everyone’s specifications. Now ...” He glanced at them once they stopped, taking the time to look each in his or her eyes. “It is critical that you do not just hole up once you get settled. The people of this planet are watched, believe me. We want to appear as worthy citizens here, and worthy citizens do things the government considers worthy. Once we make contact with Chen, we need merely wait for the ship to be upgraded. But how long it’ll take to make contact with Chen I have no idea. It’s the one wild card in the deck that we have no control over. It could be tomorrow; it could be twenty-eight days from now. So in the meantime—shop, go to parties, mingle. The SCB—the Social Credit Bureau—doesn’t know we are the lowly crew of a lowly transport ship. Those folks don’t usually emerge from freight hangars while they are here. We are about to. So we more than most will be expected to act like we belong. The Independents have secured various swank invitations here and there for us, but you still need to do your part, especially this first week, as I couldn’t secure any invitations in the next six days. Again, I don’t know how long it will take to make contact with the prime minister’s son. It’s a variable that we have absolutely no control over.”
“Welcome to Utopia,” grumbled Simon, who released Kaylee’s hand to come up to River and ask, “Are you all right? Are you ready for this? You look nervous.”
She glanced up at him. “I can’t solve ...” She shook her head.
“You can’t solve ... what? What can’t you solve?”
She sighed and shook her head again, this time more fitfully. “Never mind. We should be going. The lead limo driver is getting impatient. He’s SCB.”
Her shipmates turned and gazed at her. “Are you sure?” said Mal.
Despite feeling like she was “short-circuiting,” despite the passion of the kiss from the stranger, which still tingled through her body, she nodded surely.
She watched as the gleaming metropolis of New Cardiff passed by. The limo was whisper-quiet and in no particular hurry. She had chosen to ride in the vehicle driven by the SCB agent so that she could have clearer access to his intentions.
He was a small middle-aged Caucasian man who wore, oddly enough, spectacles, and who greeted everyone warmly as they ducked into the car. “In you go, in you go,” he said gaily. “Everyone comfortable? Excellent.”
He was sixty-five years old and had worked for the
government his entire life, and was considered a valuable asset by the agency.
Far from a middling bureaucrat, in fact, he was third in command in his subdivision.
That alarmed River until it became clear to her that he had taken this lowly
assignment only because one of his subordinates had fallen ill and they had no
one who could fill in in time.
(Most vehicles were automated. If a vehicle had a human driver, one could be certain its passengers were very wealthy and well-connected.)
Simon and Kaylee sat next to her. Across was Robon and Zoe. Everyone else was in the second limo following. Only Simon and Robon appeared comfortable. Simon had the ability to stiffen his chin and lift his nose in such a way as to appear an aristocrat; and as for Robon, his quick glance seemed to take in everything at once and give an air of patient impatience to his countenance, perfect for the snobs who called this rock home. He caught her looking at him and a corner of his mouth briefly rose. His mind, she noted, was like a calm lake, almost impossible to look into directly because it was so effective at reflecting everything back. His assassin training had been superlative.
“Where are you folks from?” asked the SCB agent-driver.
Robon had schooled them thoroughly on behavior, mannerisms, and things to say when asked such questions. It appeared that Simon was about to answer, but Robon beat him to it.
“Beaumonde,” he said without much interest, turning his head just enough to speak.
“Beaumonde!” replied the driver. “Lovely world, just lovely. Beautiful bucolic countrysides. Are you here for the Textiles Consortium?”
“Affiliated Ranchers Convention,” answered Robon.
“Ah!” exclaimed the driver. “I ferried two families heading to that just yesterday! Seems to be a much bigger deal this year than three years ago when they had it last.”
This time Simon won. “I’m sorry, but the ARC is held every other year. Perhaps you’ve gotten it confused with another convention—?”
The driver glanced into his rear-view mirror. River caught the slightest twinkle in the man’s eyes before he said, “Oh, that’s right! Silly me. My apologies.”
The Darynio came slowly into view as the limo made its way around New Cardiff’s famous
Core Drive, at the
center of which was a six-hundred-foot-tall statue of the Prime Minister. The
white, gleaming stone that made up the rock was known as “altermarble”: a nanobyte-modified
“marble” that was able to change shape without losing structural integrity, and
even keep itself clean. Robon glanced out the window at it. Obviously meant for
the driver, he commented, “My grandmother remembers when it was Liu’s likeness,
can you believe that?”
Zoe, River, and Simon nodded dutifully. The driver said, “Prime Minister Liu: a grand leader, wouldn’t you say?”
“Instituted draconian Border Reform Measures that as a direct consequence led to the War,” said River before she realized that she was thinking aloud. She had been immersed again in that kiss.
Credit Zoe, who came immediately to her rescue as the driver glanced darkly into the mirror. “We all mourn your great uncle Zed,” she said softly.
“Great man. Courageous soldier,” offered Simon.
“Were you close to your great uncle, young one?” asked the driver.
Robon gazed over his shoulder. “If you would, sir, please drive without speaking. I think we have tolerated enough.”
The agent, gazing in the mirror, retained his smile. “Of course, sir. Of course. My apologies.” River could plainly sense his resentment, even through the “short-circuiting” and the lingering electricity of the kiss. He was making mental plans to revisit “this party” in the future. She would need to tell Mal. (Not Robon, whom she still distrusted, and whom she resented more and more for his poorly hidden interest in Zoe.)
The Darynio was a behemoth of blond nano-granite topped by a light-red dome roof and a grand, overdone entrance. It looked like a mountain with a sheer cliff, one with five thousand suites, towering high into the bright haze over the city. The limo pulled into its enormous shadow, followed by the other one. Four in ludicrous black uniforms hurried quickly to them once the vehicles stopped; two opened the doors while the other two popped the trunks and pulled out the luggage. The limos were state-of-the-art “floaters,” as
used to call them, with anti-grav propulsion lifts that suspended the vehicles
with a soft but noticeable bass hum. The limos didn’t even budge as they
stepped out. A uniformed man held out his hand for her as she stepped out of
the vehicle. “Welcome to the Darynio, Miss.”
He was married with a child on the way; he and his wife lived out of sight beneath the city, as did all those who served the city and kept it running, but were seen as little more than vermin by those who could afford to stay at places like the Darynio.
He needed medicine for his wife. River opened her top-of-the-line purse and extracted the debit card all of them had received earlier, and, as everybody else walked towards the entrance, waved it over his shoulder and said quietly, “Two twenty-five” and put the card smartly back into her purse and continued towards Simon, who had just turned to locate her.
The man, startled, went to say something, but she had already brushed by him. Two hundred twenty-five credits would not only afford the medicine, but would pay next month’s rent.
Was the SCB monitoring their accounts? Possibly. Right now, she didn’t care.
Simon smiled as she drew close. Kaylee reached and grabbed her hand, her eyes wide, her smile too. “Isn’t this just the best? And you look so pretty!”
She smiled uncertainly in thanks. The group made their way inside.
The lobby was fronted by five gates, each manned by a uniformed
Alliance security bot, all Asian in
appearance. The gates were the inoculation point, and required nothing more
than passing through them. “Welcome to New Cardiff!” said the gates’ bots as they passed
They had all been given aliases during their time here, along with the appropriate identification. Robon had informed everyone that their aliases had been pulled from the
computer and represented characters or famous people from Earth-That-Was, long
forgotten. River looked at hers again as they were escorted through the lobby
by a small team of porters. Her name was Sarah Connor. Kaylee and Simon were
Marge and Homer Simpson; Jayne was Linus Van Pelt; Zoe’s alias was Marsha
Brady; Tannis Brocius had become Shirley Partridge; Inara was now Mae West; and
Mal had become Josey Wales. Robon was now Geordi La Forge; and even Lenore got
an alias: Dorothy Gale. Kaylee’s continued lessons and upgrades had made Lenore
so human in so many ways that it now took a trained eye to see that she was an
android—that is, if she didn’t speak. If she spoke it became plain within a few
minutes. Kaylee was diligently working with her on that as well, and progress
had definitely been made. Lenore had taken Jayne’s arm, who actually looked
like a gentleman who belonged here. Sri Lanka
They got to the elevators, and a few moments later emerged on the eighty-seventh floor. They walked through a beautiful foyer to their suites, of which River got her own. She tipped her porter (Hai; unmarried; indentured to the hotel for the next three years) double what he typically received and was expecting, and sat heavily on the bed after he closed the door. A minute later the door chimed. She rose to get it. It was Kaylee, who gripped a piece of fancy paper.
“We just got this!” she exclaimed excitedly, a nervous smile on her face. “It’s an invitation to the Saigari Ball tomorrow night! Robon didn’t secure this one! He and Mal are talking it over right now! The Prime Minister’s son—the one we’re supposed to help to defect—Chen, that guy—is going to be there!”
River stared at the invitation which Kaylee had handed to her. She forced a smile to her mouth. “Wow. Already? We just got here. I hope I’ve got something to wear to it!”
But in her mind, she could see him—Wash. He was staring at her very somberly, as though, indeed, she was in trouble.
More trouble than she had ever known.