Mal stared at the invitation while the crew, who had all come knocking on his suite all at once, waited.
“Could you be wrong about the
not knowing who we are?” he asked Robon, who insisted on scanning everyone’s
invitation for suspicious nanoware. They had all scanned clean.
“Unlikely,” answered Robon.
“Unlikely?” demanded Zoe. “Unlikely? You can’t do better than unlikely?”
“That’s the best we’ll ever get anywhere, especially here,” Robon responded in his usual calm voice. No one had ever heard him raise it, even when things were quite tense, prompting the crew to imitate it behind his back for laughs. “We will all die in flames and plague, yes,” got lots of laughs when Jayne said it at dinner a few nights ago; but the winner was Lenore, who could actually sound exactly like him, and who said: “Do you believe, Captain, that I am human? I am death, the destroyer of worlds.”
“He sent them himself,” said River suddenly, her face aghast as though she had just discovered she had terminal tapeworms. “He did. He did!”
“Who’s he?” demanded everyone at once. River, increasingly horrified, backed up two steps.
“Him!” she answered angrily. “The prime minister’s goram son. Chen. He sent them!”
Disgust pinching her face, she threw her invitation at the group and ran out of the suite. Simon followed her immediately. “River ...”
The rest glanced at each other. “She hasn’t had an episode in months, maybe even a year or more!” exclaimed Kaylee with concern, gazing at Simon’s back as it retreated down the hallway. She closed the door behind him and went back to the group. “What do you think is going on? Why did she mention this Chen guy like he was the epitome of evil?”
Everyone turned to stare at Robon. “Well, speak up!” demanded Mal. “That girl is never wrong when it comes to our enemies—we learned that a long time ago. Now she’s acting like this pompous cargo is the comin’ of the Apocalypse!”
Robon looked entirely surprised. He went to speak, but Deader interrupted him. “Look. I don’t know what’s wrong with River, poor little lamb, but I can tell you she’s wrong about Chen Bao-Zhi. He’s far too invested in this mission not to be a stand-up guy.”
“I have to agree,” added Robon. “His research, were it discovered, would have him executed. He’s a traitor to the
and to his father. Without Chen Bao-Zhi’s help, this entire trip would not be
Kaylee chuckled sadly. “I remember the days when we never believed anything River said, and called her names, too. Now that she’s proven herself, here we are fighting over her all over again.”
She went to the door and turned around before leaving. “Something about landing here has clearly got her worked up. I mean, over and above landing here. I’ll talk to her.”
She walked out, closing the door behind her.
“If we were in real danger, don’t you think she’d have told us?” speculated Zoe.
Mal went to answer, but Jayne beat him to it. “I really hate to say it, but I’ve been on enough jobs with her to know that she’s always got our backs. My bet is it’s got somethin’ to do with her personal.”
“Agreed,” said Deader.
“Her personal what?” demanded Mal.
The only way to get an invitation to the Saigari Ball was either to have enough money to buy an entire moon, or enough political clout to have the only say as to what happened to the unfortunates on that moon.
“So we’re goin’ in as richies,” said Mal after he had dressed. Robon had come to check up on him; the Ball was just four hours away. Jayne had come back in, as had Deader. Both looked quite good in their formalwear. He never thought Jayne could look good in a bow tie, but, against all common sense, he did.
“Not just ‘richies,’ ” said Robon. “This is Londinium. We’re going in as men and women with hundreds of millions of credits—each.”
“We’ll be walkin’ in like fresh-off-the-manure-cart hillbillies,” Mal grunted. “There’s no way we’ll pass. People with that kind of lucre never just roll around in it. They want to use it to stomp on others—no exceptions—and to parade it about so everyone can see them.”
“Nothin’ wrong with lookin’ like a hillbilly,” commented Jayne, adjusting his tie in the full-length mirror.
“In most cases, Malcolm,” returned Robon, “I’d agree with you. But not this one. The people who will be at this ball will be the ones pushing Parliament to invade Border planets, not to mention the half-dozen asteroid fields out there. Many of those owners aren’t so known, if they’re known at all. They keep to themselves—by design. The government demands they keep a low profile for ‘security reasons.’ We will pose as them, a small consortium. If Chen personally sent these invitations, he will know that’s how we must appear.”
“Basically what you’re saying is with this invasion coming up, these Border barons are comin’ out of the woodwork to claim their piece of the pie and to make sure they get a big enough piece,” commented Jayne, giving his image a satisfied nod.
“That’s exactly what I’m saying. The Saigari Ball publishes its guest list beforehand for the media. We’re late add-ons, not on that list. Independents aboard the
have been researching that list to make sure we don’t blow our cover when we
talk to someone about who we are and what we own. In an hour dossiers should be
ready to share with everyone as to what we own, our consortium title, guests to
avoid if possible, things to say and to whom, and so on.” Sri Lanka
“It would have been helpful to get this information just a tad sooner,” grumbled Mal.
“That couldn’t be helped,” returned Robon. “The false fronts aren’t as important as you might think at a ball of this nature. You won’t be interviewed. The point of the Saigari Ball is simply to be invited to it. There are no red carpets outside receiving guests. It’s a very closed-off affair, no media of any kind broadcasting it, which of course is why it’s so popular and speculated on among the crowd. Everyone wants to know who is attending. It’s a powerful political tool in the hands of the Prime Minister. The information we’ll need will come to us via the contacts we’ll be wearing.”
Zoe had just come in. “Contacts?”
Robon turned to gaze at her, taking a moment to appraise her, a quick, approving smile playing on his face. “I’m sure you wore them during the war.”
Her gaze darkened as she passed by him. “We didn’t have the technology the
Alliance did. We had our weapons; if we were
lucky we had impact armor. But we only got that when we stripped dead Alliance soldiers.”
It was a rare sight to see Robon Mishiwaka rendered speechless. Zoe was a gorgeous storm cloud, and he couldn’t hide his admiration.
“I’m ...” He held up, chuckled silently, and started again. “The technology has advanced a great deal since then,” he offered, speaking noticeably more quietly. “They are applied by eyedropper. You close your eyes for a few moments after receiving the drops; when you open them you are able to get visual information from any dedicated connected source—in our case, the
When you look at a party guest, you’ll instantly receive information about him
or her, including any warnings to stay away, along with accessible information
on them. We need to practice a little on each other before we head out.” Sri Lanka
“Watch this be a costume ball,” snickered Mal.
“It isn’t,” said Zoe before Robon could. “It’s come as you are with your piles of money and your endless greed.”
Zoe, dressed in a tight-fitting black dress that seemed to sparkle in subtle rainbow hues just as you looked away from her, looked anything like a hardened soldier. She gazed at Mal, who wore the dark blue suit and shiny gold vest of someone nouvea riche. “It’s scary to me just how easy it can be to look like one of these pigs.”
She gazed at Robon, who was dressed in traditional black, very smart. Mal noticed that as hard and unfeeling as she had been towards him, that the slightest warming had occurred in the far corners of her eyes. He had known Zoe now for years; he hoped that that was why he could see it, and that Robon, still very new to her, couldn’t. He made a mental note to talk to her and try to convince her to stay away from him.
“So where are these eyedrops?” she demanded.
“Someone will be dropping them by shortly,” he answered.
“How long do they last?” asked Mal.
“One dose will last a day.” Before they complained, he added quickly, “But they can be safely washed out before that.”
Simon and Kaylee came back in. Lenore, dressed in a baby blue gown and following close behind, looked like a fairy-tale princess. Jayne gawked at her, then went to her, taking her hand and raising it to his lips. Inara came in a few moments later, which brought more concerns: Wasn’t Clarissa Ramudy going to spot her in a matter of seconds?
“She isn’t comin’,” answered Deader. “But her husband is going to be there. You’ve never met him,” she continued, gazing at Inara, “and he doesn’t know you from Eve. He finds his wife’s ‘hobbies’ amusing, and unworthy of too much attention.”
Mal had barely heard any of that. The sight of Inara had focused all his senses firmly on her. Her scarlet and gold gown seemed to make her wide eyes shine like an exotic grade of onyx. She gave him a smile of acknowledgement, very much in control of her faculties, and glanced at Deader. The smile cooled considerably. “My concern is that others will be wearing contacts or something similar as well, and will be able to make us once we’re there.” She shot a glance at Robon. “Have you thought of that?”
“If Chen wants to meet us at the Saigari Ball, he’ll have prepared for and met that contingency. He wouldn’t have invited us had he not thought of it. He is a very intelligent young man.” He glanced at Kaylee and Simon. “How is River?”
Simon simply shrugged; and Kaylee looked uncertain as to whether or not she wanted to say something, so didn’t speak up. Deader sighed. “Poor lamb.”
“Maybe that ‘poor lamb’ is thinkin’ we’re about to be headin’ into a slaughter!” grunted Jayne, looking away from Lenore for the first time.
“That’s not it,” countered Simon. “I asked her several times. She shook her head every time. There’s just something about this Chen guy that really bothers her. When I asked she didn’t say. She’s coming; she’s just not very happy about the prospect.”
“So where is your contact with these contacts?” demanded Zoe, gazing at Robon.
At that moment the bell to the suite sounded softly, like some sort of heavenly chime.
“That should be him,” said Robon, hurrying to the door. “We should get them in and practice using them a little, then get going. Making contact with Chen so early can really play to our advantage.”
He opened the door. “Come in.”
He stepped back.
The young man that came in had a strong jaw and curious wide eyes. He glanced around at them as though at bona fide heroes. When his gaze fell on Inara, it stopped and his eyes grew even wider.
“Inara,” he breathed.
“Fess?” she exclaimed, gaping. “Fess Higgins?”
He had released a landlock on Serenity while on one of the moons of Harvest near the mudding town of
There the unlikely hero named Jayne Cobb had returned and inspired the mudders
and thoroughly outraged Fess’ father, who found “his” ship and placed a landlock
It wasn’t supposed to happen at all. He and his father had initially canceled the trip to the moon just days before, but decided to go when a foreman reported that a major shipment was ready days in advance of when it should have been.
It wasn’t the same between him and his father after that. Not that it had ever been all that good to begin with. His father was a cruel and callous man, full of rage and poison, eager to deal out death to the indentured workers—the mudders—at the slightest offense, whether real or perceived.
Shortly after, he packed up and left for Ares, sneaking out to the transport ship in the dead of night, one that had disgorged a dozen more mudders earlier in the day. His father, apoplectic, instigated a massive search for him. Safely on Ares, Fess called to tell him he wouldn’t be coming back, and to treat the mudders as the human beings they were.
“You’re no son of mine!” his father had raged, and hung up.
Inara broke from the group and ran to him and hugged him as the rest looked on.
“I just couldn’t live with myself anymore,” he said as he released her. “I had to do something to help.”
“Your father ...” Inara began.
“He used to travel to the Saigari Ball every year,” said Fess, anticipating her question. “He won’t be there this year. He died a few months back.”
“I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“Don’t be,” replied Fess. “He was my father by blood only, not by spirit, not by love. He had neither. I lost him a long, long time before his body died. Anyway ...” He moved towards Robon and handed him a small brown bottle with an eyedropper cap. “... here are the drops. You should get them in right away and test for uplink status.”
He gazed at all of them then, stopping when he got to Jayne for an extra moment. “What you’re doing ... all of you ... I just want to say that I think it’s damn heroic, and I wish you the best of luck.”
He turned to leave, taking a moment to bend and kiss Inara’s cheek. When the door behind him had closed, Robon said, “All right. Who’s first? We’re on a schedule here, people. Let’s go.”
“Right here,” said Inara, stepping forward. She looked more determined than Mal had ever seen her, her eyes shining with emotion. It seemed to him to make her gown even more stunning.
She grabbed a chair and swung it around and sat. “Let’s go!”
Robon opened the bottle and pulled out the dropper full of clear fluid. “Tilt your head back and try not to close your eyes.”
The drive to the ball would take twenty minutes and involve taking “G1A” roads, according to Robon. These were roads that were inaccessible to all except the most important politicians, business leaders, and the like, and were all underground. During that time, he informed everyone, their contacts’ uplinks with the
would be severed. Sri Lanka
Of those uplinks, they worked like a wonder, thought Mal. You wouldn’t even suspect anything was in your eyes until a little folder icon appeared in the upper right of your vision, or a text message appeared below. Getting into the folder was simple: just focus on it and blink twice. You could even answer the text message by calling up a keypad from the left corner, one that helped out by employing smart tech that anticipated your response.
Practicing on each other was amusing and instructive. Their aliases all came with very detailed dossiers.
“It’s no wonder the
the war,” Mal grumbled as he bent to get into the back of the limo, which was entirely
automated for security reasons. “Independents had nothing like this.”
“And yet look at how close we came to winning,” said Zoe. “We had our guns and our guts and nothing more.”
“I knew some ranger-dusters who got hold of some of this Core tech and did nothin’ but watch porn every day,” commented Jayne, chortling. “Half their acreage went to waste ‘cuz they were out in the bushes pullin’ on their cod ten hours a day, their wives none the wiser.”
He glanced at Lenore, his face sudden full of shame and regret. “Sorry. Opened my mouth when I shoulda kept it closed.”
“No need,” she said with a short laugh as Kaylee, sitting next to her, looked on. Kaylee’s work with Lenore, Mal thought then, had been nothing short of miraculous. Lenore grabbed Jayne’s hand as he got settled, and he gave a quick side-smile at her, saying quietly, “You look beautiful, baby ...”
She squeezed his hand. “And you, Mr. Cobb, look ravishingly handsome.”
Unlike the trip here, they were all in one long, large limo. This too was for security reasons. The doors closed automatically, and they were off towards what Mal had termed the prime minister’s sprawling goram palace.