As with almost everything, River Tam could dance. Even so, she felt hot, and couldn’t keep from peering at the face that she had not been able to place for so long now, the face of the man who had kissed her, faceless, in her dreams. She stared so one-pointedly at it that she was not aware that the rest of the ballroom was watching, enraptured.
As he twirled her over the floor, he said, “I’ve been wanting to make your acquaintance for a long time, Miss Tam.”
Black hair. Eyebrows bordering on bushy. Beautiful, dark almond eyes. High cheekbones. Ears that probably would have earned him some ribbing had he gone to a normal school as a young boy, now appropriately sized and just kissed by his hair, which was parted on the left. Strong, almost beaky nose. Dimples. A strong chin under kissable lips, ones she had felt many times to this point.
She could think of nothing else to say than: “I have wanted to meet you too, uh ... er ...”
“Chen is fine,” he said, spinning her away.
The crowd oohed and aahed, then began applauding.
“Are you having a good time?”
Why can’t I bloody READ HIM?
Wash appeared again in her mind: I’m afraid you are, River.
Chen chuckled after another spin. “You’re afraid you are?”
“Uh ... no ... no!” she said as they came together. “You ...” she fought for something, anything to say “... you’re a good dancer.”
“As are you,” he said before sweeping her around the room, their arms extended, her gown billowing artfully.
The crowd murmured in admiration. He kept his gaze locked firmly on hers; she struggled with all she could to see into him, but with no luck.
He pulled her close and spun her out. “Do you think he’s right?”
They stepped gracefully together. He twirled her, then again. He pulled her in close.
“Who?” she asked.
He slipped his hands to her waist and lifted her like she weighed nothing and spun her around. The crowd applauded. He slowly lowered her.
She managed the sense of mind to finish the dance. Her mouth was hanging open. She closed it.
He kissed her cheek, then whispered: “You are in trouble, River.”
He winked as the final note faded.
The room was silent for a moment, then filled to bursting with applause.
He lifted her hand to his mouth and kissed it. “I will see you again soon. Thank you for the dance, Miss Tam.”
He walked into the crowd, which was still applauding.
Many quickly surrounded her, bombarding her with questions and touching her like she’d just danced with a god.
Overload. “Simon!” she called just moments before the world grayed and went dark.
She was steering Serenity out of orbit. Wash sat in the pilot’s chair, watching her.
“Care to talk about it?”
“That was cruel.”
“Given. Do you think he had another choice?”
“How would I know?”
He snorted. “Lame.”
She threw an angry glance his way, then went back to the controls. The ride, always bumpy as the ship broke atmo, began calming, the roar surrounding Serenity muting.
They were back in space.
“Not lame. I don’t know him.”
“Lame. Lame, lame, lame. Hey—it’s me you’re talkin’ to! Me!”
She slammed her fists on the console. “I can’t READ him!”
“Welcome to the rest of the human race.”
He shook his head sadly. “I can’t. You need me. He can read you.”
“Why?” she cried. “Why? Why? WHY?”
He stood and came to her, kneeling next to her.
“You’re going to learn very soon.”
She sat up breathless. She was covered in cold sweat, her heart racing.
It was totally dark. She groped for the light switch. Groped harder, farther.
Nothing but air.
She felt around her person.
Not her sheets. Not her comforter.
The bed ...
... she felt for its edges, fighting panic when she couldn’t find them.
Not her bed, either!
“Simon?” she called. “Simon?”
A gentle three-tone chime to her left. Green light. A hologram. An older woman with kind, tired eyes above a nightstand. “Can I help you, Miss Tam?”
She stared down at her person. She couldn’t see past a couple of inches, but ... someone had changed her from her gown to a nightgown! By the feel of it—a silk one! Lace and silk!
“I’ll be right there.”
The hologram disappeared. When it did, low lights came on, illuminating the bedroom.
“Ching-wah TSAO duh liou mahng ...”
Okay ... not back in her hotel room. And definitely not in her room aboard Serenity.
This was the biggest, the grandest bedroom she’d ever seen.
She was in the palace!
A knock at the door, which opened a moment later.
The woman in the hologram strode in carrying a tray with what looked like settings for tea. She set the tray on the nightstand after punching a button on the holo unit.
“Miss Tam. You’re in the palace, as I’m sure you’ve figured out. The staff have been watching over you since you fainted. There is nothing here to frighten you. We’ll send you back to your party in the morning. In the meantime, I’ve brought you some xubuto tea from Lilac. I think you’ll really enjoy it.”
She’d heard of xubuto tea before. An ounce cost more than goram Serenity!
“Who ... who changed me?” she demanded. The adrenaline rushing through her made reading this woman, let alone anything else, almost impossible.
“Synthetics did. You’ll find your gown in the closet—” she pointed at the first door to the right of the one she’d come through—“as well as much less formal attire that you may wear. Take whatever you want for your own. Transportation will be ready once you’re set to go. I assure you: you are in no danger whatsoever. I advise a couple deep, calming breaths.”
Her assertive but firm style actually worked: River did as suggested, breathing deeply, her heart reluctantly slowing.
“That’s it,” said the woman. “I can see a little color returning to you. Good! It’s not yet four in the morning, so you should probably try to rest more. I should think at least four more hours.”
She was used to people being surprised when she found out information about them they hadn’t offered. Instead, Mrs. Cavarra turned calmly around. “Yes?”
She wanted to ask ... she really did.
“Nothing. Thank you.”
“He’s sleeping,” said Mrs. Cavarra with an understanding smile. “But he did ask the staff to wake him before you left.”
The xubuto tea was excellent, like a lightly sweetened version of green tea with a hint of chai. But not that easy to describe. Something else about it ... something wonderful. She downed the first cup, then drank a second.
Xubuto was known for its relaxation benefits. Within ten minutes of finishing the second cup, she lay back and closed her eyes.
... but opened them right away.
She didn’t want to overstay her welcome, so she turned on her side, facing the nightstand, and, assuming it was more than a holo intercom, said, “Time.”
The holo unit came alive, projecting the time in soft red numbers:
Good morning, Miss Tam!
“Son of a bitch!”
She threw the covers off and sprung out of bed. “Lights!” she commanded.
A moment later the grand bedroom was softly illuminated in what could only be described as a pleasing gradient of soft morning light, many hues, like waking in a meadow.
She went to the closet, chuckling as she opened it.
“Son of a bitch”? I’ve been living with Mal too long!
Her gown was in here, hanging artfully from a hook on the door. On a marble pillar directly across hung a yellow T-shirt with white eyelet lace short sleeves. Pretty. It looked like something she would wear. In fact ...
She looked for the tag. There wasn’t one. She pulled the nightgown off and put it on.
A perfect fit.
She stared at the clothes. A whole closet of them. A huge closet of them! Rows and rows!
The holo chimed. “Miss Tam?”
She wheeled around. She was standing only in the T-shirt and her underwear. “Wait ...”
But there wasn’t an image above the nightstand. Did that mean Mrs. Cavarra couldn’t see her? She had grabbed her gown anyway and clutched it to her person, walking a step or two out of the closet. “Yes?”
“Just checking in. Sleep well, or are you still sleeping?”
“I’m up, I’m up. Just ... getting dressed ...”
“The next door over is a bathroom. Take your time.”
“Thank you ... yes. I will. Thank you.”
“Are you hungry?”
She was. But it occurred to her then that her bladder was about to burst, which interrupted her response.
“Uh ... yeah. I am. Uh ...”
“Will a traditional breakfast do?”
What came with a “traditional breakfast”? “Uh ... yeah. Thank you.”
“I’ll get it started then. Those clothes are there for your use. No sense in putting that pretty gown back on.”
The holo went silent. While there wasn’t an image, a yellow and purple nebula blazed above it. It flickered and was gone.
She put the gown on the bed and hurried back to the closet. She had had a big closet when she was a little girl, but nothing like this. She could walk forty feet in any direction into this one, a space way bigger than her room on Serenity!
Did she want to peruse all these clothes, or just get dressed and get out of here? Or maybe have a pleasant, longer-than-three-minutes shower? Beyond her aching bladder, it pleased her that she couldn’t quickly decide.
How was her size known so perfectly? Synthetics? The same ones who changed her out of her gown last night? So creepy. Or ... not. She imagined Lenore changing her. That didn’t seem so bad.
The bottom line was this: she was standing in the very center of power in the goram Verse! The instant she and the rest of the crew entered the palace, they were probably sized up right down to the molecule.
She kept the T-shirt on, then went on a hunt for blue jeans. Not surprisingly, they were the first thing she came across. She buttoned them up, any surprise that they fit her nonexistent. Behind her was a bureau. She opened the top drawer. Socks! She selected a pair, then opened the next one. Underwear!
It made her feel better that none were her style. They appeared quite generic, better suited for an older woman, most beige, white, or black. She closed the drawer.
Shoes to the left. She found a pair of running shoes and put them on, then hurriedly shuffled to the bathroom before her bladder exploded.
When she opened the bedroom door and peeked out, the holo chimed. “Miss Tam, are you dressed and ready for breakfast?”
She turned and went back to the nightstand. “Um ... yeah.”
“Be right there.”
She closed the door, alarmed that she might have done something wrong. Less than a minute later, Mrs. Cavarra knocked.
River took several steps back. “Come in ...”
The door opened. Mrs. Cavarra smiled. “You’re looking quite chipper this morning, Miss Tam. Come. Breakfast is down the hall.”
She motioned with her arm. River walked through. Mrs. Cavarra shut the door and took the lead. “Eggs, sausage, some hash browns and orange juice suit you this morning?”
“Uh ... yeah. That’ll be fine.”
“Excellent. This way ...”
Everything about this place was overdone, epic, grand, ludicrous. There was no corner, no dark, forgotten bit of the ceiling, some minor splotch on the floor that wasn’t meant to convey total power, grandiosity, and ego. Royal reds, crimsons, golds, purples ... Roman architecture mixed with Chinese mixed with ... hell, she didn’t know. Aztec? Mayan? Tapestries and statuary, paintings and vases sitting on lonesome stands.
Not a single cobweb anywhere.
Mrs. Cavarra turned a corner; a hundred feet on, she turned another.
The kitchen was a shock, because it was austere, with white walls and silver steel counters and cabinetry. One counter, covered in decorative tile and lined with half a dozen bar stools, was adjacent to a huge oven with a dozen or more stove units above it, shining under some kind of ceramic surface, which had a mesmerizing red design of thin lines covering it. A window directly across looked out into a sprawling courtyard. The air smelled of mornings she remembered as a child, when mother cooked for them. She found herself not missing them, her parents, but aching to be with Simon and Kaylee again.
“Sit! Sit!” said Mrs. Cavarra, turning to the counter under the window, which had a huge (of course) sink and cabinets to either side. Her breakfast was next to a coffeemaker; Mrs. Cavarra grabbed three plates and set them in front of her, then unrolled silverware and placed them on a fine crimson cloth napkin with what she recognized as the Chen family crest.
She put a hand on her shoulder after serving her coffee. “Enjoy, Miss Tam. Call if you need anything.”
“Thanks. I will,” said River quietly.
Mrs. Cavarra left her in peace.
River cut into the eggs and brought a forkful up to her mouth. They were delicious, beyond delicious. Eggs were goram expensive out in the black, a luxury item, as were sausage links, honest-to-goodness rye toast, and butter—real butter! And the coffee!
She ate with relish, closing her eyes occasionally with the pure pleasure of it.
She took a moment to consider how the others were. Were they okay? Why hadn’t the Sri Lanka tried to contact her? Was this some sort of last meal, and was she destined for execution at the hands of blue-gloved assassins? Mrs. Cavarra called her by her real name. Was that important? Should she be scared?
Chen stood to her right. She hadn’t sensed his approach; she hadn’t even heard him enter the room! He too was dressed casually, in a black T-shirt and blue jeans.
She stared without blinking, the spoon she was holding falling with a loud clink! to the plate.
“May I join you?” he asked as the silence became awkward and heavy.
More silence. But she managed to get her head to nod, once.
He gave a deferential nod. “Thank you.”
He came around behind her and took the stool to her left. He glanced up. “Computer: enable Chen BZ protocol zeta-6-zeta; equation nine, please.”
She didn’t hear anything happen after that—no computer acknowledgement, no clicks or whirs, nothing moving, no static. He lowered his chin, closed his eyes, and sighed, like he was readying himself for something. She watched him, her eyes burning. She thought to blink, and did.
“Why can’t I read you?”
She had asked the question before she was even aware she had. It tumbled out of her mouth as though it had a mind of its own.
He opened his eyes, but he didn’t look at her. He kept his gaze focused on the tile of the countertop.
“There was a time when I thought I could make great change,” he said after more awkward silence. “I thought I could change the course of the ship of state, as it were. I was wrong. Do you know how old I was when I first thought that?”
He glanced at her.
She waited, then shook her head.
“I was four. I was already considering matters of state—at four! I was reading, absorbing everything I could, asking endless questions. At four years old, I determined that the Government of the Allied Planets was fundamentally ill-conceived and immoral. At four.”
He waited for her response. Incredibly, one was at the ready.
“When I was four I was learning Mozart’s Sonata in C ...”
The smile that formed on his lips was one of contentment. “Beautiful. One of my favorites.”
“I was learning calculus too.”
He nodded contemplatively. “I was a year behind you in that regard.”
“I was performing ballet with kids four times my age.”
“I could tell from your dancing last night. I was learning advanced Shaolin techniques.”
“Why can’t I read you?”
His glance fell. It came back up to meet her stare. “You’re ... nineteen?”
“I’m a couple of weeks from turning twenty-five. When I wasn’t even three, my father and his staff recognized my talents. They wanted me to receive the very best education possible, something no other kid had ever received. They saw that I had other gifts, ones they considered even more important than my intelligence.”
He stopped for a time. He wouldn’t look at her. “They thought they could ... enhance them, sharpen them, make them ... unvanquishable.”
He went silent.
With all that had transpired just the last day alone, her mind felt full to bursting. It’s why his silence following initially confused her. But like magic, her mind emptied of everything, like a great cleansing wind blew in and swept everything away. Everything but Wash, who was nodding with sad understanding at her.
The look of horror on her face, one she wasn’t cognizant of but which clearly telegraphed that she beginning to understand, prompted him to say, very quietly. “I’m so sorry, River.”
Her head felt like it weighed a ton. It actually hurt to gaze into his eyes, which were available now to gaze in, wide and bright as they were.
Credit him: he didn’t look away.
A full minute passed in silence.
“You...?” she asked, more mouthing the word than actually saying it.
“It was just me at first. Years later, of course. Just me and the best scientists, neurologists, brain scientists, surgeons, physical fitness experts, biophysicists, university professors, and defense experts. They called it the Academy of One.”
“Not at first. But yes, with my father’s permission, certainly not mine, they did. But ... nothing like you. Nothing like ... so many others. You ...” he shook his head “... were brought there to challenge me. It’s why I can read you, and you can’t read me.”
Her chin quivered, and her eyes spilled. The delicious breakfast she just ate wanted to vomit itself out. “I ... I ... want to go home. Now.”
She could feel herself losing control, could feel the panic ramping up, higher and higher and higher. “Now! Please! Please!”
He stood. “Chen two-six-gamma, Serenity. Emergency! She’s collapsing. Hurry!”
He barely evaded the fist that rocketed towards his face, then her roundhouse kick. But not the next kick, which slammed into his stomach, sending him back against the wall. He collapsed, curling into himself.She was instantly on him, trying to tear his face off. The door opened a moment later. Black-garbed men and women descended on her. One stabbed a needle into her neck. But even after she went unconscious seconds later, it still took more than ten minutes to pry her hands from his neck.