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Mile Markers

Friday, January 17, 2020

Enjoy Chapter Fourteen of Firefly: Slingshot!

Chapter 14
Mal Meets the Cargo

River was trying to get his attention. She was sitting across from him, next to Simon, who was puzzled by her as well.

   “What?” he demanded as quietly as he was able. Leaning forward, she whispered, “The limo is bugged.”

   It was at that moment that a message appeared in the upper right of his vision:

Limo is bugged.

   Everybody must have received it, because they glanced around at each other.

   The vehicle descended into a tunnel.

   Mal nodded and River sat back, looking distinctly uncomfortable. Kaylee laid her head on Simon’s shoulder; he kissed it. Zoe looked stoic, as she did whenever she was about to enter into a big firefight. Jayne and Lenore were talking, but from what Mal could tell, it was about his boyhood farm. Robon, to Mal’s immediate right, seemed Zen calm, which just made him want to smash his thigh to bring him out of it. Inara, against the left door across from him, gazed out the window with a sad countenance. And Deader ... was now talking to Kaylee. She reached and took her hand and squeezed it.

   Daylight abruptly brightened the interior as the limo left the tunnel and began slowing after a brief climb.

   The prime minister’s palace was enormous and ostentatious to the point of absurdity. Statuary stood everywhere; everything glinted in gold. They must have emerged into some sort of great carport, because the sky wasn’t visible.

   Men in colorful, ludicrously overdone palace livery opened the doors, placid, welcoming smiles on their faces.

   They didn’t speak. Mal figured that they were considered too lowly to speak to such exalted individuals as they. He thought of Hebus Corporal and the villagers—hell, the entire moon—of Jiangyin opening limousine doors and feeding peeled grapes to their bloated pig owners, and again suppressed the rage always just simmering beneath his diaphragm.

   Text suddenly appeared in his eye:

Link reacquired. Please confirm by pressing Y.

   It was a comical sight, because everyone except Robon stopped and gazed up to their right. It became even more ludicrous as everyone worked to type with their eyelids the letter Y and finish with a final blink, all heavy blinks, as though everyone had just gotten something in their eyes at the same time.

   Robon noticed. So did the men holding the car doors. (What were they called again? thought Mal. Right, right: valets.) As did Inara, who, glancing around wide-eyed, exclaimed, “Virgil always told me of the glory of this place. I ... I just never would’ve believed it had I not seen it for myself!”

   That brought everyone around. Mal thought: Who the hell is Virgil? He’d managed to type the Y and blink SEND; he hoped everybody else had succeeded too. “Are we ready? Yes?

   He gazed at them.

   “Y-Yes!” said Kaylee, a little too emphatically, who glanced at Simon. Blinking normally, he blurted, “Y-Yes.” The others chimed in as well.

   More greeters waited. Mal stifled a groan. Inara came and took his arm. “Shall we?”

   Her proximity made it difficult for him to think straight. It didn’t help that she smelled like heaven too.

   “We shall,” he said. Leading, he took the three steps necessary to get to a red carpet that had been laid out especially for them. Jayne and Lenore followed; then Simon and Kaylee. Deader was behind them, followed by Robon, who was escorting Zoe.

   Do not forget your aliases! came another message from the Sri Lanka.

   Every limo got a red carpet, every goram one of ‘em. That’s how enormous this palace was. There wasn’t a separate entrance for each; the carpets angled towards several massive semi-circular porticos, the columns and roofs of which appeared to be alive, the stonework made malleable by nanotech, constantly shifting from one epic entrance to another. The stone made a pleasant yet intimidating constant grumble, surprisingly muted, as it shifted. As Mal got to the front, theirs had shifted to a tiger fighting a snakelike dragon.

   Yet more greeters waited. One held a transparent electronic clipboard. With a practiced smile he said, “Ah! Our esteemed Affiliated Ranchers! Welcome! Welcome!” He held a hand out. “Mister Wales. If you would accompany me to the Victory Foyer, I believe I have a message waiting for you. Would you, please?” He stepped aside and motioned widely to his side.

   Not wanting to give the party away, Mal strongly suppressed the urge to glance back at the rest in alarmed confusion. Instead, he smiled: “Of course.” To Inara: “Dear? Shall we?”

   “I’m so sorry, Mister Wales,” said the greeter. “I’m to escort you only. My sincere apologies to you, Miss West,” he offered with a short bow, “and to the rest of your fine party. Shall we, Mister Wales?”

   A message appeared in his vision a second later:

This is a new development. All proceed as planned;
further instructions coming.
Captain Reynolds—extreme caution with all you say!

   The routine was to blink-type a Y for such messages—shorthand for “copy.” Mal, as he followed the greeter in through the enormous, shifting entrance, which had become a bull standing next to a cliff and a setting sun beyond, and blinking his Y response, hoped that the rest weren’t stupidly glancing up and to the right again as they responded.

   The foyer was as expected—grand and incredibly overdone. Absurd. It literally smelled of money in here, as though the particular odor of it was being piped in. The furniture, scarlet and gold and all exquisitely handcrafted, appeared brand new and utterly unused, decorations only, each piece worth more than Serenity. Partygoers made a low rumble punctuated by women’s occasional plastic laughter. They passed through towards what ostensibly was the main ballroom, or a ballroom, at least. Everyone was dressed to the nines, smelled of the finest colognes and perfumes, their hair in the newest and most expensive styles, glowing radiantly with the nearly infinite corruption that defined their gilded lives.

   The greeter led him into a hallway, where armed men and women wearing the same black bodysuits waited. Palace guards?

   Were they busted?

   No message from the Sri Lanka. Was the connection cut off?

   There was no fighting out of this. If they wanted him and the group, it was done. He didn’t even bother glancing around for escape routes, as was his instinct.

   The greeter stopped and turned to face him. “Excuse me, Mister Wales. These guards will see you the rest of the way. Please enjoy the ball.”

   A guard approached. She was maybe five and a half feet tall, but looked like she could take on twenty men. She wasn’t heavily muscled; it was in the way she walked, the cold light in her eyes. She stopped two feet in front of him. The others surrounded him.

   “Please hold up your arms, Mister Wales,” she said. Her voice was military-flat, trained to get instant obedience.

   He did as told. “Is there a problem?”

   A guard stepped close behind him. He heard a whir come to life from a device in the man’s palm, who ran it over him twice, then reported, “Clean.”

   “Please follow me, Mister Wales,” the woman said, smartly turning on her heel and walking down the hall. Her troop followed to the sides and behind. He was precisely in the middle.

   Still nothing from the Sri Lanka.

   What was going on with the others? Were they also being escorted down halls? Or were they now in the ballroom? Had greeters made them?

   Here he was, in the very teeth of the Alliance, in the very palace of the prime minister himself. In his entire life, he never thought he’d ever get to within fifty AU of this place. But here he was. He thought of that final battle in Serenity Valley, how hopeless that felt. How hopeless it was. He was twenty-five pounds lighter and radiating rage and filthy from muddy days, occasionally sick living on spoiled rations, chasing mating rats out of his sleeping bag, and huddling in frozen trenches.

   Here he was.

   His shipmates and Mishiwaka could be dead. The realization struck him harder than anything else these past years ever had. All that money Badger promised him ... it seemed like a pittance now, hardly worth it.

   Was Serenity in trouble? If he was, then she was. The Alliance would destroy her. Old Fireflies were less than useless to them.

   The hall was goram long, an eighth of a mile or more, arrow straight, few doors. The ones they passed were always double doors, always ostentatious, always grand. Until this one. The last one on the right. A plain door, though the trim was still hand-carved and the damn knob probably solid gold. The troop leader grabbed it and twisted it, pushed it open. She stepped to the side and motioned him in. Her comrades stiffly waited in the hall.

   She gave him a final stony glance, then closed it.

   Four walls, like any normal room. Square, perhaps forty feet on a side. The adjacent walls across from him met by means of book shelves that went from the floor nearly to the ceiling, which was of standard height, maybe ten or twelve feet, its only ostentation a Baroque-ish painting of a cityscape. An antique desk loosely straddled the corner, not too far from where the shelves met. An emerald-hooded reading lamp, turned on, stood on it, papers beneath it arranged neatly with a black pen on the stack, ready to be examined or read or signed. Dimmer than normal light. Homier. No computers.

   He turned in place. The right wall had another door, also plain, close to the far corner. Couches and seats were near it. On a coffee table between them was a serving set. The teapot issued lazy curls of steam behind a pair of porcelain tea or coffee cups.

   The wall nearest him (behind him) had a large viewscreen inlaid into it. There was nothing else near it or on it.

   So ... someone was coming to talk to him. Someone ... who was going to drug him with ... coffee? It sure smelled like it. He went to the coffee table, bent and sniffed.

   Drugged coffee?

   He sniffed again.

   If it was drugged, the drug was odorless or masked by the coffee’s fine aroma.

   He went to the shelves and began glancing at the titles.

   Old-style books. They just weren’t produced anymore—or, ever. Certainly not in his lifetime. Back on the ranch where he grew up, there were these old-stylers, just like these. Ma had kept a whole study of them, and treated them like they were gold. All of them were novels—classics. He had read them all, some multiple times.

   “Our lives are a story, son,” she told him once. “We’re the heroes in them. If we were raised right, we were,” she added, giving him a stern stare. “Most folks are villains, even in their own stories, even if they think themselves the heroes.”

   “How do you know you’re the hero and not the villain?” he had asked.

   She pointed at the books. “These right here, and all like ‘em. You’re gonna find out real quick that bein’ a hero has got tough-as-nail rules. If ya wanna be a hero, you’re gonna follow those rules the best you can. No bendin’ ‘em, no negotiatin’ out of ‘em. Stories help ya navigate the rules and learn about ‘em and even build on ‘em. You’ll find in stories common themes and elements. Heroes are the same no matter where in the Verse ya go. Understand?”

   “Understood,” he whispered, pulling a book that looked very familiar from the shelf. It was. A boyhood favorite, in fact. Starship Jericho.

   Not a gilded copy, it was a bit worn and torn, something entirely unworthy of this place. He thought it might cause him trouble, so before he opened it, he put it back. But damn ... it looked just like the edition back home.

   He glanced at several others: Seven Moons, Dust Highway (a personal favorite), This the Matter, Autonomous Only. All worn and torn, as though they had been read dozens of times. All very familiar, all worn as he remembered them.

   The protagonist in Seven Moons ... his lover ... Inara had always reminded him of her. What was her name? Carly. That’s right. Carly. Though Carly wasn’t a Companion, and she died at the end.

   He continued scanning titles, increasingly astonished at how many he had read. And ... their condition. They didn’t belong here. Just like him. Was their presence as noteworthy?

   The door across the room opened, and a young man strode in. The dark-clad guard behind him quickly closed it. He smiled and motioned for Mal to join him at the couch. Mal eyed him with suspicion before pushing The Wailing Country back into its spot on the shelf—yet another favorite—and cautiously made his way across the room.

   The young man looked to be in his early twenties, Asian descent, maybe an inch shorter. He wore a formal purple jacket and dark trousers, and a welcoming, lopsided smile. His hair was medium length, standard conservative cut, no ostentation, parted slightly on the right, with a small braided ponytail that hung just below his neck . As Mal approached, the youngster held out his hand. “Mister Reynolds,” he said quietly, “it is a real pleasure meeting you at last.”

   Mal stared at the hand for a moment longer than good manners allowed, then took it. The young man’s grip was strong and sure. “Hi.”

   The young man’s smile widened. “It is so good to hear something like that.” He kept hold of Mal’s hand. “I am Chen Bao-Zhi.”

   He released his hand.

   “The ... prime minister’s son. Our cargo.”

   “Indeed,” said Chen with a light laugh, motioning at the couch, “the cargo. Please sit. Some coffee?”

   “Uh ... sounds good.”

   He sat. Chen poured him a cup, then himself. The action almost went unnoticed until Mal reminded himself that the son of the prime minister had probably served no one his entire goram life, and indeed had probably been waited on hand and foot by a literal army of servants. It could be seen as nothing less than a message: I am at your service and your pleasure.

   Mal tried not to stare as the son of the prime wuh duh ma huh tah duh fong kwong duh wai shung minister set the pot down and took the left seat across the table. He took a sip and a moment to savor it, his countenance relaxed and contented.

   Mal took a sip too, thinking that was what he was supposed to do. It was like coffee he had never drunk before, like it had been brewed using filters manufactured in goram Heaven or such. That good. He took another sip, making an effort not to gulp it, and put the cup on the accompanying saucer on the table.

   “You’re the one who sent the invites?”

   Chen nodded. “Through trusted intermediaries, yes. Everything here is very planned, very coordinated. I can’t take a piss without it being on an entire department’s schedule.”

   That brought an impulsive chuckle to Mal’s lips.

   Chen smiled. “I saw your ship come down, Captain. One of my Companions ... she’s a loyal Independent. She wanted me to see it. I cannot tell you how excited I was when the data confirmed it.”

   Mal shook his head after a time. “This ...” he murmured. “This ... is too much.” He gazed at Chen. “How is it that you are still alive, that you haven’t been found out?”

   Chen shrugged. “An interesting thing about redundancy systems: where they overlap is where data can be confused, even obscured. There are no fewer than one thousand sixty-six redundant systems monitoring my every move, my every breath. The overlap ...” he shrugged again “... let’s just say a reasonably intelligent captive, given the opportunity, resources, and time, might be able to exploit those overlaps, make them work for him.”

   Mal studied him. “Captive. Interesting term.”

   Chen looked up and around, his face darkening. “This is a gilded prison, Captain. This entire world is. In fact,” he went on, leaning forward, “I would go as far as to say the entire Core is. I seek to escape. You are my means to do so.”

   “Forgive me, uh ...”

   “Chen, Captain Reynolds. Just Chen. Please.”

   “I realize ... Chen ... that you’ve earned the trust of the Yuns and the Independents ...”

   “... but you’re not ready to trust me.”

   “I can’t afford to. No offense.”

   “A wise attitude from a wise captain, if the stories are to be believed.”

   Mal grunted. “Don’t know if I’ve ever been called wise. Been called a few other names, though.” He kept his gaze on him. “Would you mind tellin’ me ... I mean ... how old you are?”

   “Is it important?”

   “No,” answered Mal, shaking his head companionably. “You just seem wiser than your years.”

   Someone these past few weeks had told him how old this guy was, but Mal couldn’t remember.

   “I’m twenty-four. Thank you for the compliment.” He bowed his head before taking another sip.

   “You must get a thousand a day.”

   “I get ten thousand a day. Not one of them is genuine. You gave me a genuine compliment, Captain. It’s probably the first of my entire life. A real gift.”

   He stood and put the cup down on its saucer. “Would you mind, Captain, accompanying me to the books?”

   Mal blinked. “Sure ...”

   He stood and walked to the books. He didn’t follow the prime minister’s son; Chen waited so that they could walk shoulder-to-shoulder. Another message.

   Once there, and as he once again gazed over the tomes, Chen said, “I have spent my life reading about great men and women. Great heroes. Fighters. Warriors.” He went silent for a moment. “Of great men, I can say this: my father isn’t one of them.”

   What could Mal say about that? Stunned, he kept his mouth closed.

   “And yet the media commonly—and freely—portray him that way, well beyond what is expected of our propaganda arm. There are no fewer than six thousand books declaring him as much; no fewer than fourteen thousand statues of him system-wide, including eighteen over two hundred feet tall, and one a thousand feet; no fewer than eight dreadnought-class battlecruisers named after either him or something about him; no fewer than seven hundred eighty million Alliance citizens who have named one of their children after him; no fewer than twenty-two thousand separate scientific discoveries named after him or something about him; and no fewer than half a million different products with his name or likeness on them. What are your thoughts, Captain?”

   Mal had made a conscious effort to keep his mouth shut. The best he could manage was: “I ... uh ... I watched a parade in his honor on Dyton a couple years back ...”

   “And how was it?”

   He shrugged. “Parade’s a parade. We were pickin’ up livestock for a run to ... hell ... somewhere.”

   Out the corner of his eye, he watched as Chen nodded longingly. “Somewhere.”

   An uncomfortable silence followed.

   “Have you missed them?”

   “I’m sorry. Missed what—?”

   Chen motioned at the books. “These. They’re yours. Or were yours. Not all of them, of course. I had to borrow or pay for similar copies in terms of wear and tear, as well as the proper editions. Not cheap, I must tell you; and not easy to locate, either. Tellingly, every adequate copy was found on Rim worlds. At one point I had more than four hundred agents all over ...”

   “These are ... mine?” Mal interrupted, glancing at him as though he were crazy.

   “Quite a few, yes,” Chen replied, approaching and pulling a thick tome down, one Mal recognized instantly—Adventures Beyond Hazy Bluff.

   Mal fought off the gape trying to open his mouth. Chen, fingering the book as one would fine crystal, eventually glanced at him. “No need for concern, Captain.”

   “Uh ... why...?

   Chen’s smile this time was anything but happy. Mal felt the weight of the world in it. “Because your mother treasured these books. To that end she took photos of them and uploaded the pictures to a relatively unknown citizen’s archive server on the Rim that has long since been closed. I got to it before it was.”

   He studied him. “I’m no stalker, Captain. You’ll have to take my word on that, given that the evidence weighs against that statement. If you’ll allow ...”

   “Sure. Sure. But ... I mean ... why? Why go to all that trouble?”

   “Because men, Captain Reynolds, considered great by the masses so frequently are not. In fact, almost always they are not. Because when you’re someone like me, trapped under the endless tonnage of adulation, of state propaganda, of being raised in it, steeped in it, soaked in it, drowned in it, cameras in your face every moment of every day, every word you utter front-page news ... you lose sight of what greatness truly looks like, what it truly requires, what empowers it, what ...”

   “Look, uh, Chen,” Mal interrupted again, fighting to compose himself. The first time he had cut him off, Chen smiled as though granted a wondrous gift; the prime minister’s goram son smiled with delight again; and Mal, as he considered his next words very carefully, realized that probably no one in this young man’s life had ever interrupted him, or even thought to.

   “I’m nothin’ close to a great man. I’m afraid you went to all that trouble for nothin’. Truly, I’m nothin’ but a cargo-haulin’ Firefly captain who’s just tryin’ to stay on the right side of the law. Nothin’ more, I’m afraid.”

   He glanced at the books. “And I can definitely say I haven’t read most of these. I love reading, sure; and it’s great to see these again—the ones I’ve read. I was made fun of as a boy by some of the hands for doing so, but I can tell ya our study didn’t have a fifth of what’s here.”

   “You see and embody important patterns, Captain,” Chen replied after a time. “I read all the novels in your mother’s study—the ones we—my trusted associates—know were there, the ones that archive had listed. From there I branched out, always with your biography in mind, your known history as an Independent, a soldier, a vagabond of sorts. I do this not in adulation of you, but in fear, and, truthfully, with respect. I am doing more than entrusting my life to you, Captain. I am entrusting the vision of a human civilization where the term ‘Alliance’ is spoken as it always was meant to be spoken: as a truly democratic union of equals working towards a genuinely better future, one where separating, classist words like Rim and Core are discarded, where slavery of any kind is seen as the radical evil it is. Where the fine porcelain pretense of democracy is shattered for the authentic, gritty, hard-to-hold kind. Where despots and their henchmen are held to account and broken upon the hard pavement of justice. That includes my father. I do not worship heroes, Captain. I do not worship you. Instead, I seek to emulate them, and you, having for so long been sheltered and insulated away from those who truly embody the heroic, for the heroic are necessarily enemies of what my father and this government and the billions of sound-asleep sheep living and dying under its rule uphold as sacrosanct. For better or for worse, Captain, you fit the bill.”

   “Uh ...” Mal murmured. “Uh ... I ... don’t ... I don’t ... uh ... know ... uh ... uh ... patterns?

   “Patterns of the heroic. Ways of being that honor the individual but never straying from the tightrope of how that best serves society-at-large. Some shady dealings, sure; and some violence when warranted. Some thoughts of vengeance, yes. We are, after all, human. But doing what is right by those who most depend on us to the best of our abilities such as our sphere of influence and resources allow. And by ‘us,’ I include such things as a Firefly cargo ship. I consider myself an animist. That ship has a soul, Captain Reynolds, and is being treated by my technicians thusly.”

   He stepped around so that he was facing him. “I am curious about one thing, though.”

   “And what is that?” asked Mal, feeling so out of his element that even his own hair felt strange against the top of his ears.

   “You were once a very devout Christian—Presbyterian, if I’m not mistaken.”

   “That’s true.”

   “What happened?”

   If there were deception or the desire to dominate or oppress in this young man’s eyes, it wasn’t apparent to him. This was a job interview—the weirdest goram job interview in the history of the goram Verse.

   “The war happened,” he answered quietly.

   “And yet human history is replete with war. One might say that all human history is is a study of continual conflict; and that peace is the rare and oftentimes surprising period, always short-lived, between one war and the next. We come from millions of years of war. You were devout then, even knowing so. Was it your participation in the most recent war the reason for your loss of faith?”

   “I saw evil growin’ up,” he said after some thought. “I saw a ranch hand abusing a baby calf once. It shook me to my core. Never forgot it.”

   Chen listened with what could only be called intimidating concentration, nodding intently, as though Mal were some sort of enlightening speaker. “Please. Go on.”

   “I volunteered for the war against the Alliance,” Mal continued after some thought. “I was young, idealistic ... in a word, stupid. That war bombed those bits of me to oblivion. Includin’ any idea that there was some sort of supreme being watchin’ over us.”

   Chen’s thoughtful nods lost momentum, stopped. “And yet ... here you are.”

   Mal caught the meaning beneath the words, but didn’t want to comment on them.

   “So ... am I hired?”

   The son of the prime minister held out his hand. “Of course you are.”

   Mal took it. Chen reached and grabbed his upper arm in a gesture of warmth. “You may not have noticed, but we have a big party going. Care to join?”

   Mal chuckled. “On the whole, no. But if it helps you, if it helps us, sure. We’re all a bit jumpy, just to let you know.”

   “Yes. Of course you are. Come anyway and enjoy some fine food and drink and dancing. I have many obligations to see to, so I may not get a chance to talk to you or your crew again today. Please give them my very best. My trusted associates will see to your comfort and safety. My Companion will be in touch with you as the time for departure draws near. Hopefully you and I will get another chance to converse before that day arrives.”

   He motioned towards the door he had used to come in here. “Shall we?”