He led Mal through the door he’d come through. Guards were waiting just outside, the hallway dark.
“Lights,” he commanded, and the space was instantly illuminated in cold white light, but just in the moving ten-foot cube that included them.
“A private corridor,” he observed as Mal followed. The moving cube of light they were immersed in gave him the impression they weren’t going anywhere. The guards brought up the rear.
“These corridors are here, of course, for security reasons—quick escape routes, easy access for military personnel, that kind of thing. They save time if you’re in a hurry. Force fields can be activated if necessary. It is said that Prime Minister Wong fled through this very hall to escape the military coup that ultimately established the Chen line.”
“Huh,” said Mal.
“That’s pretty much how I feel about it all. I take it you aren’t a student of history, Mister Wales?”
“Not really,” he answered, then amended: “But I probably should do a little research. Might help with what’s comin’ up. Though I did get a shocker of a history lesson not too long ago.”
“Ah,” said Chen. “That lesson. The biggest one of all.”
“If you don’t mind me askin’, how long have you known?”
“Prime ministers, it is said, are among a handful—no more than ten or twelve—who are privy to that knowledge. I learned as you did—by means of the Independents. Who of course learned it from the Yuns. On my sixteenth birthday.”
“Some birthday present.”
“It was in the middle of my first orgy.”
“Uh ... what—?”
“I had to pee in the middle of it,” Chen mused matter-of-factly. “A Companion let herself in. She told me in mid-stream. She was a friend of one of my most trusted Companions.”
“That must have ... uh ... well,” Mal trailed off, genuinely at a loss.
“Deflated things?” replied the son of the Prime Minister with a laugh, doing the job for him. “Poured cold water on the proceedings, as well as other things?”
“Both, I’d reckon.”
“As a matter of fact, it excited me to no end. I knew somehow at that point that there was a way out of this gilded hell. I think that’s why she told me. She could sense that I really wasn’t all that enthusiastic about ... well, not just the orgy, but my entire life.”
Mal thought back to when he was sixteen. Just a dumb kid workin’ a ranch, bustin’ his butt fourteen hours a day. He was as clueless as they came. The hands, his mother none the wiser, wanted to “treat” him on his birthday to a hooker in town, and even drove him to see her, leaving him at the second floor near her door. They went back downstairs to the bar and lit up the night.
The girl was more than pretty enough: dark, wavy hair just glancing her shoulders, big almond eyes, beautiful elven face, slender figure. She smelled like heaven too. She invited him in, kissed his cheek, and told him to sit on her bed. Her room was softly glowing scarlet red, incense burning on a nightstand, music quietly playing from a dark corner. She must have been twenty-one or twenty-two. She told him, but in his excited confusion he forgot almost instantly.
She sat next to him and tussled his bangs, then kissed his cheek again. “You really don’t want to be here,” she said, smiling knowingly.
“You’re ... uh ... pretty enough, ma’am,” he stuttered apologetically.
“Alex,” she corrected him. “Just call me Alex.”
Truth was, he had never even kissed a girl before. Somehow, he got the courage to tell her.
“How ‘bout this, Malcolm,” she suggested, “how ‘bout I teach you how to kiss a girl? We don’t have to do nothin’ else if you don’t want. Promise. Can I teach you how to kiss? Can we have some fun doing that?”
“Uh ... sure,” he said, fighting the blush rising painfully into his cheeks.
And so that was what Alex did. She taught him how to kiss. It ended up being more exciting than he could ever imagine sex being. She left him at the stairs’ landing an hour later fighting a genuine crush and lightheaded to the point of stumbling, which he did several times.
“If you want more lessons,” she had said, giving his cheek, and then his lips, one more kiss, the latter long and lingering, “come back anytime, okay? You’re quite a good kisser, a natural.” She winked playfully, then left him.
The ranch hands were never the wiser, judging his blinking astonishment as him having had a raucous lay. They razzed him all the way back to the ranch.
The next six months were a living hell, because he couldn’t get her off his mind. He saved every damn credit he got; and when he got the chance, he went back into town, this time by himself, looking for her and the chance to have another lesson. He ran into the madam instead.
“Alex?” she grunted. “Gone. Moved back home to Santo. Got herself hitched to a decent man, rumor has it. Left the life. Anything I can do for ya, or one of my girls?”
He went home crestfallen. It would take the war, years later, to ease the ache of her absence. It certainly didn’t help that Inara, especially now with her shorter hair, looked very much like her.
“I’ll leave you here, Mister Wales,” said Chen, snapping him back to the present.
He had stopped at a black door. “Your party is through here. Please, sir—have a good time.”
He extended his hand. Mal took it.
“I will be in touch,” he said. With that he advanced on down the hall, his guards closely following, the cube of light making him appear as though he was striding into empty space.
Mal shook his head in an effort to accept all that had just happened, then reached for the handle—which didn’t exist. Instead the door swished silently open.
The room beyond was dimly lighted. He stepped through. When he did, the door closed and another opposite him opened. Another guard waited.
“This way, Mister Wales.”
He followed her into another corridor, similarly lighted to the first, though the walk this time was significantly shorter. She stopped at yet another door, also black. “Able Charlie Gamma two-two-six.”
The door opened. The guard motioned him through. “Have a good night, sir.”
“And you,” returned Mal, stepping through.
Inara was waiting in this room, one lighted homey yellow and elegantly furnished. She stood when she saw him.
“Mister Wales,” she said with a wry, sweet smile, walking to him and reaching out to caress his lapel. “Shall we?”
He held up his elbow for her to take. “Miss West, we may.”
The door opposite opened, not with sensors but with yet another guard, who did so when Inara knocked on it.
Music, bright, colorful lights, the graceful motion of dozens of people dancing, along with the rich smell of rich foods.
Hand-in-hand, they walked into the ballroom. He didn’t wait, but led her instantly to the floor.
“Why, Mister Wales,” she said, looking up at him with a surprised smile. “I thought the last thing you’d want to do is dance.”
Without anyone’s knowledge, while the Independents worked on de-bugging Serenity, he had spent time in his cabin learning these “sniffy two-steps,” as he had called them to himself, anticipating the possibility that he’d need to know them. Most were far more complex than two-stepping, of course, but that didn’t matter.
Inara noticed. “You’ve been busy!” she said after a twirl.
“If you’re in hell, ya might as well dance,” he replied when they came together.
“Shall I ask what happened?” she said as they “sniffy two-stepped” up a row with those on both sides waiting their turn. He spied Kaylee and Simon near its head, and Zoe and Robin.
“I don’t even know where to begin,” he grumbled. At that moment a message showed in his vision:
Captain Reynolds, please acknowledge.
This he did with a blink. The message following read:
Falcon has made contact.
Will advise as needed.
Falcon? Who the—?
Right. Chen. Who the hell else would it be?
He blinked his acknowledgement, irritated that he had to, but impressed he could read the message, suss out who it was referring to, blink back, and not miss a beat of the dance. The couples had spun apart then together again. In that moment he decided on a plan.
There was Jayne with Lenore. He was impressed to the point of doing a double-take. It appeared as though Jayne had been taking private lessons as well! He was so impressive, in fact, that the couples around them had given them extra room and occasionally applauded their fancy footwork!
It probably didn’t hurt that Lenore was physically superior even to Jayne, and had probably taken zero-point-three-three seconds or however impressively short time span it actually was to download ballroom dancing techniques.
She behaved nothing like she did with Mister Universe—jerky, an obvious android. Kaylee’s work had been nothing short of miraculous, to the point that it didn’t seem like the same girl (the same bot, he reminded himself).
It occurred to him then that the palace’s scanners hadn’t picked her up as one. That, or Chen had somehow altered them to make sure they didn’t. Something to ask about later. He knew that “synthetics” weren’t allowed in here, so somehow she had gotten away with it.
The dance concluded; all applauded politely in the direction of the small ensemble along the near wall (to the left); and a new song began after the conductor politely acknowledged the attention with a bow.
“I could go for something to wet my whistle.”
Inara smiled. “This way.”
“I haven’t told you how stunning you look tonight.”
Just off the dance floor, she stopped and faced him. An awkward moment passed. She was still smiling, but indecisively.
She came closer, stood on her tippy-toes, and gave his cheek a light kiss, staring into his eyes for an enticing moment after pulling back.
“This way,” she said. She still hadn’t released his hand.
Elated, he followed as she made her way through the crowd to a long table piled high with all sorts of expensive food and drink, and wait staff ostensibly ready to feed it to them with golden forks if need be.
“May I get you something not on the table, sir?” the near one asked. He was older, with a bald head and neatly trimmed moustache.
“Any Settler’s Wild Nicky hereabouts?” asked Mal, thinking fondly of Hebus Corporal and hoping the good mayor was all right, and how, very soon, he and the entire moon of Jiangyin wasn’t going to be.
“An excellent choice, sir. Not here, unfortunately; but I can surely get some within five minutes—?”
“Five minutes’ll do just fine. Make it six if you’re so inclined. Or eight. Or, hell, even ten.”
“Very good, sir.”
The waiter tapped his lapel. “Settler’s Wild Nicky, please.”
The waiter went silent and back to staring ahead. That pissed Mal off. Not because the waiter was stiff and formal, but because he knew that he was indentured, and was expected to act this way: only to provide the sniffs—provide him—with whatever he desired, but not to pretend in any way that they were the equal of him.
Inara squeezed his hand. She must’ve intuited his mood, or even his plan. “Another dance?”
“What’s your name?” he demanded, bold as brass. He could feel Inara stiffen.
The waiter glanced at him, surprise momentarily passing over his face. “My name is Darryl, sir.”
“Where you from, Darryl?”
“My family is originally from Poseidon. Sir.”
The whiskey arrived, another waiter presenting it to Mal as though presenting him with fine crystal, holding the bottle at an angle appropriate for close inspection.
“Looks good,” he said, not bothering to look. He turned to Inara. “Dear? Want some?”
She gave him that glance that told him she knew what kind of trouble he was up to and wasn’t keen at all in joining him in it. Still—“Yes. That would be lovely.”
“And you, Darryl. Join us, won’t you?”
Darryl tried, but failed, to hide his shock. “I’m ... sorry, sir. That would be highly inappropriate.”
“Because you’re indentured?”
“Mister Wales ...” Inara hissed under her breath.
“Yes, sir. I’m afraid so, sir.”
“You’re a human being, aren’t you, Darryl?” He turned to Inara. “What? What’s wrong with using the word ‘indentured’ in here? That’s what this high-falutin’ shindig is really all about, isn’t it—celebrating keeping human beings in shackles? Come, Miss West. Let us be game-breakers.”
He turned back to Darryl before she could retort. It was plain that the waiter, though uncomfortable, was enjoying this exchange. The other indentured near him, however, had carefully moved away, as though to disavow any knowledge of the conversation. They cast worried glances at both of them.
“Are we not created the same in the good Lord’s image?” demanded Mal.
“Yes, sir, I believe that is the Christian belief.”
“It’s the belief of many religions. I’m not religious, Darryl, but I believe it as well. And because I believe it, I must insist that you join me in a round of this fine hooch. Here—”
He snatched the bottle from Darryl’s grip, released Inara from his, and went to the table, where fine crystal glassware waited on a shiny marble stand. He opened the bottle, poured himself a triple shot’s worth, then did the same with two other glasses. He handed one to Inara, who looked about a half-inch away from murdering him, and one to Darryl, who hesitated but took it with, “Thank you. Sir.”
Mal held his glass up and thought of Book. “To being created equal in the good Lord’s image.” He had spoken loud enough that several sniffs dancing by glanced, alarmed, in his direction.
Darryl couldn’t help the corner of his mouth lift just a little. He clinked his glass with Mal’s, who clinked his with Inara’s, and said, “To being equal in God’s image. And to praying for your immediate future, sir.”
They drank. Inara sipped hers; Mal threw his back in one gulp; and Darryl took his in two.
“You must forgive my partner ...” Inara began.
“My future has always been a big if, Darryl,” interrupted Mal. “More n’ most folks, I’d wager. Tell you what. Have another round with me and I’ll see to it that your contract is voided. I promise. Deal?”
Darryl blinked heavily.
“No shit,” said Mal. “C’mon—”
He poured them another round. Inara still had at least half of hers left, so he didn’t bother. “What is wrong with you?” she hissed, eyes wide with fury.
“Absolutely nothin’!” he declared loudly, holding up his glass. “To your freedom, Darryl.”
Darryl clinked his glass with Mal’s. “No, sir. To yours. I fear for it now.”
“No need!” laughed Mal just before downing the fine whiskey. It was goddamn smooth, that vintage of Settler’s Wild Nicky, and it fueled his ornery urge even more.
Darryl finished. Mal held out his hand, and Darryl shook it—yet another major no-no.
“It’s gonna be okay,” declared Mal, putting his glass down on the table and giving Darryl’s shoulder a hardy pat. “I promise.”
He grabbed Inara’s hand and led her back to the room where she had first greeted him. He let her in just as Sri Lanka’s message burst in on his vision, in all caps:
WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU THINKING???????
“What the hell are you thinking?” demanded Inara not a second later as he closed the door.
He held up a finger to stay her, which only infuriated her more. He blinked access to the keyboard and, faster than he thought he could, typed:
You cow paddies are in contact with Chen, right?
The terse message came back:
He typed back:
I just invoiced him my fee for ferrying his ass off-world.
Darryl is to be set free before we break atmo, and compensated for his slavery.
If the money isn’t good enough, and his family isn’t included, it’s no deal.
He waited. Inara must have figured out that he was busy communicating with the ancient starship, because instead of shrieking at him, which he knew was coming, she paced around the room, her dark stare fixed on him, full of murder.
The reply came:
Why are you endangering Chen, yourselves, and this mission?
It was his turn for all caps.
GET HOLD OF CHEN RIGHT NOW OR IT’S OFF!
RIGHT GORAM NOW!
With that, he closed the interface. He knew it wasn’t going to be all that helpful, that any return message would activate a little red dot in the bottom right of his vision, one that would blink annoyingly until he looked at the message. Sure enough, within seconds, there it was.
He turned to Inara, who stood two feet in front of him.
“Look,” she began, visibly exerting herself to calm down, “I get it. I don’t like indenturedness any more than ...”
He turned and walked to the door.
“I’m TALKING to you, Mal!”
He stopped before turning the knob. Without glancing back at her, he said in a low, dangerous tone, “It isn’t ‘indenturedness.’ It’s slavery.”
He turned to face her. “I’ve been fighting this bullshit most of my goram life—you hear me? I asked—Do you hear me?”
He expected an explosion; instead she lowered her gaze. “I hear you.”
“If Boy Ruler wants a ride, wants to be free, then he needs to remember how many people he’ll be leavin’ behind that aren’t free, and are probably gonna die very soon, YOU GOT ME?”
She nodded, her eyes brimming.
“If he’s anywhere near a decent individual, then he’ll not only free Darryl and compensate or free the rest of his family, he’ll do what he can for as many as he can before his ass breaks atmo! He’ll protect us and he’ll know I’m gao yang jong duh goo yang FOR REAL!”
He slammed his fist into the door, grabbed the handle, yanked down, opened the door, and ran smack into someone—a man—who fell sprawling.
“Hey! Watch yours—!”
The man cut himself off, outraged, as he glanced up—
Mal, glaring down, shook his head. “Wuh duh ma huh tah duh fong kwong duh wai shung ...”