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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
The inefficiency of lust, eighteen candles and two boxes of booze.
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 2757 RATING: 9 SERIES: FIREFLY
The next two days saw Dr. Simon Tam, fugitive from justice and former trauma surgeon, become Inspector Simon Marshal, Agent of Parliament. A suitable uniform was found and fitted. The many electronic appliances a true Inspector would be expected to carry were procured – scientific instruments, record keepers, medical encyclopedias, and a priority cortex relay. And Simon had two full fourteen-hour days cramming for the part, learning background information and minutia that might trip him up.
The rest of the crew was almost as busy. Kaylee was so enthusiastic about a real overhaul, however brief, that she spent nearly every waking moment in the bowels of Serenity. She didn’t even miss Simon much, she was so distracted.
When he wasn’t otherwise in briefings and planning sessions, Mal spent his time talking with his fellow captains and discovering a few old friends from the War who had disappeared into the Gopher Hole afterwards. His unease about the trappings of the Independents mellowed in some ways, deepened in others. Seeing old comrades he had thought dead, and discovering them no more radical or crazy than he remembered helped mellow him. A large part of the deepening was due to Zoë.
Zoë had found her own role. At her insistence – and against Mal’s moderate objections – she had volunteered to lead one of the assault and evacuation teams.
“Why?” he had asked, when she had told him – with only a trace of guilt in her eyes.
“Because they need experienced people for the assault teams, Sir. Remember Turk from the 223rd Recon? He’s here. He remembered me from the Gideon Offensive, and recommended me, and they asked real nice.”
“Woulda been nice to have asked me,” Mal said, rubbing his chin.
“Consider this me askin’, Sir,” she said, almost serenely. “I’d be obliged if you went ahead and said ‘yes’. Not like you truly need me on the boat.”
“This ain’t like you, Zoe,” he said, shaking his head. “Can’t say I ain’t concerned.”
“It’s just for this mission, Sir. And . . . it’s something I need to do.”
“I seem to recollect this whole mission was somethin’ you needed to do.”
“Well, this is part of it.”
“Just hope it don’t see us all cadaverized . . . ‘cause you needed to do it.”
“You have no idea how depressed I’d be in that case.”
“As long as you’re weepy, I guess it’s okay, then,” Mal said, knowing that Zoë had set her mind to doing the thing, so nothing short of an out-right order would dissuade her. He knew that it was part of her peculiar style of grieving, but he was wary. It was all too easy to buy into the fantasy that the Independents in the Gopher Hole had any chance to overthrow the Alliance. He was having his own troubles with keeping that in mind, and Zoe was more of a soldier than he was.
She had been surprised that the Independents recognized her rank – not the corporal rank she had attained before Serenity, but the Lieutenant’s rank she had been mustered out at – and even gave her some credit for “accumulated back pay” in the shops and stores of the facility.
McBane had agreed to put her in charge of a mixed platoon of Radical Greens and Browncoat infantry, and for two days she drilled with them and got to know them well enough to command them. Her past misgivings about her suitability for such a role seemed gone. She was confident, assertive, and she marched and practiced and fought with her men more like a platoon sergeant than a proper officer.
She didn’t, Mal noted, put on a uniform, instead remaining in her mufti under her browncoat.
River spent most of her time wandering barefoot through the tiny park that had been allowed to grow “wild” – if anything in such a controlled environment, ten miles under the airless surface of an abandoned moon could be considered wild. When she wasn’t there, she was wandering through Gopher Town, gawking at all of the soldiers.
That’s where Inara found her.
Inara alone of the crew had no post, no role, no function here. She was in a bit of a daze as she moved through the living remnant of a once-feared enemy. She had been a staunch Unionist during the War. She had bedded dozens of Alliance military officers, even government officials, all of whom had been dedicated to destroying the movement utterly. After Serenity Valley and the Amnesty and Reconciliation Acts had passed, she had counted that mission accomplished.
But this place . . . it was a threat to the Alliance, however small and insignificant. She knew that. A few thousand men at arms, a few dozen ships . . . one Alliance cruiser could have polished them off before lunch. But the spirit and hope she saw here, the expectation of eventual victory, those elements, she knew, were far, far more dangerous than the guns and hardware. This base was well put-together, organized, efficient . . . and infused with an enthusiasm for the cause of Independence that few had felt for the Alliance in years. These people were motivated. What was more, they were smart. They might not be able to overthrow the Alliance, but they could easily re-ignite the flame of sedition across a dozen systems.
Even a few years ago she would have felt outrage, and sought to inform – discreetly, of course – the proper authorities about this enemy of the state. But the last six months had changed her point of view. Especially Miranda. And what had happened to River. When she saw what her government, the government she had supported so passionately for so long, take such criminal steps to deal with the population it was supposed to lead and protect, she had questioned her own loyalty to the cause of Unification. That didn’t mean she supported the Independence desire for scores of separate sovereignties – that was one step removed from anarchy – but she no longer felt obligated to defend the Alliance. She wasn’t sure she even believed that Unification was such a grand idea, any more.
She had done some shopping (Mal had kindly loaned her some cash – called it “shore leave swag”, since she was now an ex officio member of the crew) and had bought a few more things for her shuttle. That had been depressing enough – the knowledge that in a few short months, she might be permanently banned from the Guild made redecorating a painful process – but she had found a few colorful dresses and some nice calligraphed scrolls. She had even found an outfit more suited to her current position, a plain, drab-looking coverall that she had bought with perverse pleasure. She had always dressed for effect, and to don such a utilitarian garment was an odd act of personal rebellion. Besides, it was practical. If she was to be a cook on a freighter, she didn’t need to look like a Companion. In fact, she had ruined a few outfits in the kitchen already.
“River!” she called, as she spied the girl across Gopher Square, the main drag of the community. She was staring at a fountain sculpture made up of cast-off pieces of military hardware. She didn’t look up at Inara when she yelled, but Inara could tell that she had heard. “River! There you are. I’ve been looking for you.”
“It’s water,” the girl explained, dreamily. “A chaotic liquid in motion, influenced by the topology of the material structure as it pursues its gravitic destiny. Meniscus, friction at the solid/liquid interface, and an underlying turbulence inherent to the matter state, all working in a random, chaotic dance to achieve a particular visual and aural state – never the same, yet always the same.”
“Yes, it’s very pretty, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but is it Art?”
“That . . . is a discussion for another time,” Inara said, with a quiet grin. In truth, the body of the sculpture (principally made up of the top turret of a captured Alliance T-21 “Vulture” armored attack carrier, she noted – she had once had a client who was an armored cavalry lieutenant. A very boring one.) was kind of ugly, and the artist responsible for the piece had been less concerned with aesthetics than the fascinating artistic possibilities of a welding gun. “What are you doing?”
“Surveying the vicinity for points of interest,” River said, matter-of-factly, continuing to stare at the fountain. “There are squirrels in the forest, you know. Two hundred and seventy-four of them. And some raccoons. Nine families. It’s very peaceful, like a storybook.”
“That’s what I hear,” Inara agreed, patiently.
“No gophers, though. I kind of expected some gophers.”
“You would think,” agreed Inara.
“I’ve also been observing the mental, emotional, and physiological reactions of the male personnel in regards to their sexual thoughts.”
“Oh,” Inara said. “My.” She was, actually, very aware of the large number of handsome, well-built and brutally heterosexual young men who inhabited the base, and Gopher Town was a place where they relaxed their military discipline enough to appreciate her. And she had felt very appreciated. While there were plenty of women around, too (most just as attractive as the men) and even some children, she had been stared at more here than in any place she could recall. It may have made a less-confident woman self-conscious, but Inara was better disciplined than that.
It had also brought home the point that she hadn’t had a client – or sex with another person – in months. That was beginning to become an uncomfortable issue with her. Not that she wasn’t above a little celibacy, from time to time, but while her emotions and mental state were in turmoil, her more basic needs were starting to assert themselves. She had been staring back, and engaging in far more erotic daydreaming than she was used to.
She could only imagine how awkward things would be if you were, say, a seventeen year old horny virgin telepath.
“They are very adamant in their unexpressed emotional desires,” observed River, finally looking away from the fountain. “Very primal and anatomically specific emotions. The really interesting ones are where they depart from standard psycho-sexual forms and engage in speculative fantasy involving unusual stimulae. For example, that man over there wants to disrobe and have you flog him with a whip made out of his boot laces.”
“That one, the sergeant, wants you to wear . . . some kind of very specific undergarment and yell abuse at him. That one thinks you look like his sister, but that doesn’t seem to dissuade his . . . ewwww!” she said, wrinkling her nose in disgust.
“River, I don’t think—” Inara said, looking around nervously.
“That one thinks your bust would make an appropriate eye-cover, that one is strongly attracted to your legs, thighs, and buttocks, that one wonders what it would be like to see us . . . um . . . that one is fascinated by your eyes and that one thinks that cranberry color you’re wearing and the cut of your dress make your butt look too big and those slippers make your ankles look fat. Oh. That wasn’t particularly sexual. Kinda catty, though.”
Inara took a deep breath. “River, is it like that in your head all the time?”
“Yep,” she said, nodding matter-of-factly. “It’s a living hell. The horny thoughts are hard to dodge, they’re usually pretty potent. You would not believe some of the . . . oh, actually you would,” River conceded.
“Yes, well, human sexuality is a wide and gloriously varied thing, River. It’s complex and complicated, and tied into so much else. It’s also . . . intensely personal. Your . . . ability gives you a unique perspective on it, but . . . well, mei-mei, there is such a thing as discretion.”
“But it’s so terribly inefficient!” River declared in frustration. “Attraction, arousal, friction, stimulation of neuro-receptors, and then pow! Flood of endorphins and dopamine. Big gorram deal. Why all of the . . . the wasteful indulgence in emotional and psychological feh hua?”
“It’s a little more complicated than that,” Inara said, feeling for all the ‘verse like she was out of her element. Of course, that was not an unusual feeling for anyone dealing with River. “There are spiritual and emotional components to sexuality that go far beyond the physiology of arousal and orgasm. Sex is an art, a very personal art for most people. There’s an old Guild saying about it being ninety percent fantasy and ten percent friction. Exploring and learning that ninety percent is far, far more important for a person’s healthy enjoyment of the art than the ten percent that involves . . . friction.”
“It’s just so messy,” River said, discouraged. “Especially the attraction phase of the procedure. Perhaps a more potent form of pheromone might eliminate the—”
“It just doesn’t work like that, River,” Inara insisted. “Sure, we may become aroused at . . . say a very handsome, strong man, for instance. But that arousal doesn’t necessarily mean that following through with that arousal is the wisest course of action. In truth, it is often the least wise course of action.”
“I still say it’s woefully inefficient,” River insisted. “If I have a particular biological urge, and enter the arousal phase directed at, say, that boy over there with the robust biceps . . . well, leaving it unresolved does nothing but make me . . . sticky.”
Inara looked around at the young man in question. She had to agree, his biceps were rather . . . robust. “Sweetheart, sometimes we all get . . . sticky. That’s natural. Satisfying that urge with the boy, however, involves several layers of protocol that humanity has worked out over the last hundred thousand years. And every time some one has tried to make . . . the process more efficient, I guess you would say, it has collapsed and left a lot of sad, lonely people behind. We have those rules for a reason, and they are important. Even if they are inefficient.”
“This was a lot easier to deal with when I was batshit crazy,” River sighed.
“I have no doubt. But it’s part of being a woman, and being an adult. I can see it’s going to be very hard for you.”
“I have kissed a boy, you know,” River said, defensively. “I’m not . . . stupid. Or a baby.”
“No one said you were. That McKlintock boy?”
“Tinker, yeah. Now he’s getting married. And that other kid, Rel, he wanted to marry ME. And he wasn’t even thinking about having sex with me. What kind of sense does that make? Inefficient and indulgent!”
“I’m not arguing,” Inara said with a giggle. “But the fun things usually are, aren’t they? I guess we need to start teaching you some of the less-physical elements of the sexual realm.”
“Yeah, I guess. Hey, why were you looking for me, anyway?”
“Can’t you just read it out of my head?”
“I’m trying not to be a total freak of nature here. Besides, all of that arousal gets in the way of coherent thought sometimes.”
“I know what you mean,” Inara agreed emphatically. “I got a call from the Captain. He wants you to meet someone over in a tavern called . . .”
“The Rally Point,” supplied River.
“I thought you weren’t going to read my mind?”
“You were taking too long.”
“Oh. Anyway, he said to meet him there. I think it’s over against the west wall.”
As they headed towards the pub, they passed a knot of browncoats that they had been discussing earlier. Inara made a point of pausing just long enough to address one young man in particular.
“My butt looks fantastic, thank you, and there is NOTHING wrong with my gorram ankles!” she said quietly, but intently, and passed by, leaving a very confused young man in her wake.
The Rally Point was not one of the more popular bars in Gopher Town, catering to an older clientele of senior non-coms and middle aged civilians, mostly. The younger hell-raisers drank their hooch in a larger and far gaudier venue called The Black Hole, which bore a large hand-painted sign of a battered Independent battle flag with a stylized swirling black hole where the black star usually was. The Rally Point was a more sedate establishment, the music less loud, the drinks less potent, and the conversation more serious.
At this time in the local “day” it was nearly deserted, only a few of the many sturdy tables manned. The tired-looking bartender was prepping for the next wave, due in only four hours when the base’s day shift let out for the evening. A tired old tune that had been only moderately popular a decade ago played from a tinny-sounding speaker system, and there was hardly any smoke and not a drop of vomit in the place. Yet.
Mal was already there, sitting with Zoe at a large round table with an ornate but battered hookah pipe in the center. She had just finished her second day with her new men. She seemed more animated than she had been since Miranda, and Mal, despite his casual demeanor, seemed more worried.
“There’s our girls,” Zoe called with a smile, waving them over. “Have a seat. Mal was just telling yet another version of how he and Monty got out of the Chin Weun Envelopment with just a rusty bayonet, charm and a muslin petticoat.”
“More of a linen, actually, lots of pretty embroidery around the neckline,” he corrected, rising half-way.
“I can’t wait to hear it . . . again,” Inara said, tactfully. “Is that tea?”
“Nope,” Mal assured her. “Want some?”
“Please,” she said, after a moment’s hesitation.
“Toss that weak-assed ditchwater and have some of this,” Jayne’s voice boomed across the room. He strode to the table with two large wooden cases, one on each shoulder. “Got some fancy booze. Some feller just appeared out of nowhere and told me to bring it by here for him.”
“Ah, that damned liquor fairy,” Mal said, sadly. “Know that bastard well. Whatcha got?”
“Looks like four, five bottles o’ some fancy Beaumonde bourbon, some rum of indeterminate origin, some . . . peach brandy from somewhere called Eation—”
“That’s Eation Province, on Boros,” Zoe said, her eyebrows raised appreciatively. “Let me see that. That’s some good stuff,” she said, approvingly.
“Got two big assed bottles of plum wine, and it looks like some genuine moonshine from Lilac,” Jayne said excitedly.
“That’s enough booze for a cruise,” Mal nodded approvingly. “I wonder why he gave it to you? He wasn’t sly, was he?”
“I . . .” Jayne said, then stopped, confused.
“You are a fine-lookin’ slab o’ man,” Kaylee’s voice said from the door. “’Till you open your mouth. That kinda ruins it.”
“What are you doing here?” Inara asked, troubled. “I thought you were getting intimate with Serenity’s . . . innards?”
“Got a message from the deck captain that I was needed here urgently,” Kaylee said, confused. “Just got the cover plates back on the girl, too. Didn’t even have time for a shower. So where’s the gorram fire, Cap’n?”
Mal shrugged. “Don’t look at me. Zoe brought me here. Told me there was something I had to see, and I should bring River.”
“Some THING?” Inara asked, confused. “I thought it was some ONE?”
“I don’t recall being that specific,” admitted Mal, thoughtfully. “Hey, is that Tinker McKlintock?”
It was, indeed, the junior mechanic on the family-owned Sky Hawk, and he was carrying a large box. His fiancé and sister both came in behind him, similarly encumbered.
“That’s quite a coincidence,” Zoe said, nodding.
“Too much of a coincidence,” Mal said, quietly. “River, anything up?”
“No . . .” River said, cautiously. “I think . . .”
“Hey, Serenity!” Tinker called, cheerfully. “Fancy meetin’ y’all in this dusty joint!”
“Just makin’ a delivery,” Rowan McKlintock said, dropping her box with a thud on a nearby table. “Some jasper waved us with a paid order for all sorts of unlikely merchandise. Said to deliver it here.”
“That’s . . .” Mal started to say, then stopped.
“I’ve always appreciated your self-confident approach to a situation,” Jayne said to the McKlintock girl, putting on his best manly charm. “Find it very alluring. You’ve got some fine leadership abilities, too.”
“He still got that gorram tree on his ass, don’t he?” Rowan accused. “Wish he’d just stare at my girls like he used to.”
“Like I said,” Kaylee repeated. “Opens his mouth, and the façade come tumblin’.”
“Anyone else think this is—”
“Got something for you folks,” the bartender said, wiping his hands on a greasy towel. “Just got a wave, said to bring this by your table,” he said, setting down a small holoemitter on the table. It was a cheap model, the kind used for advertising on the more sophisticated worlds. “Said I should activate it and back away slowly. Try not to break anything, okay?” he pleaded as he pressed a button in the side of the emitter and turned to go.
“Uh oh,” Zoe said.
“This is ominous,” agreed River.
A holo of Simon, standing only twelve inches tall, appeared on the table.
“By the time you see this,” the recorded voice said, “it will be too late to stop me.”
“Oh, crap,” River whispered.
“What the hell?” Kaylee gasped. “What is this?”
“I’ve given this a lot of thought,” Simon said, taking a seat in a chair that was only partially visible. “A whole lot of careful thought. Because there are some things that, well, they seem impossible, at first. Things you never thought could be done, and so ordinarily you wouldn’t even try to do them.
“This is one of those things,” he continued, heavily. “I came at it from every angle, tried to wrestle with the problem in the dark of night. I couldn’t ask for advice, either, which was frustrating. But I’m an intelligent and very resolute fellow, I’ve been told, and one who has within him the capability of extraordinary things. And between my superior powers of reason, and a healthy dose of luck, well, I found a way.”
“Oh my God, what’s he done?” Kaylee asked, horrified.
“So thanks to our . . . hosts, and with a little inspired bargaining, I think I found an answer to my essential question:
“How do you sneak up on a telepath?”
“What?” Mal asked, eyes opened wide.
River stared numbly at the simulacrum of her brother. “He’s done something stupid,” she assured everyone. “And he’s feeling smug about it, too.”
“I mean,” he continued, smiling faintly, “you can’t keep a secret on Serenity. Not with my little sister around. So how do you arrange things in such a way as to get everyone to do exactly what you want them to do, when you want them to do it, without any single one of them knowing – and therefore giving away the secret – before it was time?”
“If he’s . . .” Kaylee whispered.
“Shhh!” River said, excitedly.
“So this is what I came up with. This is why you are all here. If all went according to plan, everyone from the ship is here, and some others are probably arriving, too. And with you all in one place, I know where you are. And you don’t know where I am. Which is how it has to be.”
No one said anything, as a feeling of quiet dread and morbid expectation built in the room.
“You see, I needed to arrange this . . . this thing, and I needed to do it on my own. But now everything is arranged, and no one can stop me. Things are in motion. It’s too late to turn back. So let me go ahead and reveal my little plot.” The image of Simon stood. River, staring wide-eyed at the holo, her nose only inches away, looked frightened.
“River,” Simon’s image said, gravely, “I love you, mei-mei. Happy Birthday.”
“What?” several people asked in confusion.
“I guess that’s what these gorram candles are for,” Rowan said, opening her box.
“WHAT?” River shrieked, after a pause.
“Happy Birthday, River,” the real Simon said from the doorway. “Surprise!”
It took a few moments for everyone to realize, finally, what had happened – perhaps more for Jayne. But when Simon came in with a few carefully wrapped presents and gave his little sister a big hug, she was weeping joyfully.
“It is her birthday,” Mal said, approvingly. “Or, at least it was a few days ago. I think.”
“It was,” Simon assured over River’s shoulder. “I didn’t make a big deal of it at the time because she was steering us through the treacherous tunnels. But she’s eighteen, now.”
“You son of of of a BITCH!” River sobbed.
“That was ‘bout the sweetest thing I ever saw,” Kaylee said, dreamily, as she watched her boyfriend grin happily.
“It was one of those freak occurances,” Simon explained. “Everything kind of came together right. The McKlintocks came in, and I had Winnie bake you a cake. That should be arriving shortly. I arranged for the use of the hall from the Brigadier, and one or two other amenities, and I bought a small fortune in quality booze. I had a devil of a time coming up with a way to get everyone here at the same time, but it finally all clicked, and here you are!”
“You . . . you . . . you are the best brother I ever had,” River said through her tears.
“Aww, ain’t he a sweet one,” Rowan said, warmly.
“Back off, Red,” Kaylee whispered harshly. “I got him tagged.”
“I ain’t seein anyone at th’ moment,” Jayne said conversationally.
“That’s quite a feat,” Mal finally said with a chuckle. “How do you give a reader a surprise party? Well done, Doc!”
“Oh, but there’s more!” Simon said, lustfully, grabbing a bottle of rum out of the case and opening it. “There are presents, of course. And hopefully this will be just a little less memorable than my birthday party!”
“What happened at your birthday party?” Tinker asked.
“Blew a . . . something or other on the engine, lost power, almost died,” Simon explained. “It was a hoot.”
“You said presents?” River asked, wiping away her tears.
“Three of them,” Simon assured him. “Jayne, open those bottles and get some glasses, Winnie should be here with the food any minute.” Simon looked at Mal pointedly. “So will Duncan and Devon. I trust there won’t be any . . . unpleasantness, Captain?”
“It’s a party,” Mal assured him. “I’m not going to start something.”
“Good,” Simon said, firmly. “See that you don’t. Go ahead, Jayne, get the glasses – the bartender’s been paid already, don't worry." He took a too-large swig of the rum directly from the neck of the bottle, and immediately regretted it. "Well, since I’ve agreed to do this damnfool stunt and will probably get myself and all of you killed in the process, I figured I at least owed it to you to get you knee-walking drunk the night before we launch. And as for River’s presents, let’s start with this one,” he said, handing her a leather-bound packet with ceremony.
“What is it?” River asked, taking it eagerly.
“Piloting credentials, utterly reliable, utterly falsified by the base forger. You went to flight school on Hera, did a cadet cruise on a fertilizer freighter, and you’ve logged over a thousand hours at the boards. GPA and test scores put you, naturally, in the ninety-ninth percentile.”
“Oh, Simon, that’s great!” River said. “Who’s River Tammany?”
“You are, now,” Simon said. “Just like I’m Dr. Simon Agricola Tammany, graduate of the Medacad on Boros, with board specialties in general surgery, trauma surgery, emergency medicine, and neurology. I feel kind of bad about that last one. I was never the best in neurology. But each new name comes with a shiny new identicard that will not get us arrested the first time we flash it. It’s not foolproof, but it might keep us out of trouble someday.”
“Shiny!” River beamed. “I’m a real pilot, now!”
“But that’s just number one,” Simon said, enthusiastically. “Here is number two. Corporal?” he called, and a young man in the olive-drab fatigues of an Independent soldier came out of a back room. “River, this fine young man is Corporal Davie Ryan, of the Third Signalers Corps. He’s also the three-year-running dance champion of the base. He is under direct orders from the Brigadier to be utterly at your service for the next twenty four hours, dancing with you in any manner you desire.”
“I’m here to serve, ma’am,” he said, shyly.
“Wow!” River said, impressed. “My own corporal!”
“That’s a noble gift,” Zoe laughed. “Every woman should have one.”
“I don’t think he’ll keep up with River, though,” Rowan said, shaking her head.
“Then he’ll die trying,” Mal vowed with a laugh. “You hold, son! You hear me? No matter how bad it gets, you hold until the bitter end!”
“Yessir!” the boy blushed.
“He already wants to feel me up!” River whispered conspiratorially – though not as quietly as perhaps she had intended – to Inara.
“What?” Simon asked, cutting a sharp look towards the corporal.
“Drink, baby?” Kaylee asked, sliding next to Simon in a perfect distraction.
“So what’s my third present?” River asked, eagerly.
“I . . . we have about ten minutes before it’s ready,” Simon admitted. “Have a drink and take your corporal for a spin. Barkeep, something . . . peppy?”
While River and the young man began to gyrate to the enthusiastic approval of the audience, Winnie McKlintock came in, followed by the rest of her family. While none knew for certain the nature of the occasion until they got filled in, they were all happy to lend their best wishes to River.
“That was awful sweet,” Kaylee whispered into Simon’s ear.
“I figured she was owed a decent birthday. She hasn’t had one since she was eleven.”
“I though she didn’t go to that . . . place until she was fourteen?”
“You don’t know my mother. She tried to have these upscale, fancy birthdays for her, and they always seemed to go . . . poorly. Fundamental clash of personalities, you could say. And there was the incident with the pony . . . well, let’s just say the ‘verse owes her a good time at least once.”
“You are the most beautiful man I’ve ever met,” Kaylee said, kissing his ear. “Let’s duck back to the—”
“Maybe after the third present,” Simon said, warily. “I’ve got a bit of a schedule to keep. But I have time for a drink or two. I’m going to need it.”
A few minutes later a private came in and got Simon’s attention. He nodded and grabbed River, promising her return in a few minutes and encouraging everyone to start eating and putting candles on the cake. Then he led River out of the bar and across the street to an administrative building, where they were escorted into a bare room with two chairs and a screen.
“We’re just about ready,” the private said.
“Thank you,” Simon replied.
“What is it?” River asked, anxiously. “I thought it might be new boots, but you’re keeping me from—”
“Yes, well, I want it to be a surprise, so I’m purposefully not thinking about it,” Simon countered.
“You aren’t being entirely successful,” River said, knitting her brow. “I think you’re . . .”
“Enough speculation, you’ll know in just a few minutes.”
“Thank you, Simon,” River interrupted, gratefully. “I had forgotten it was even my birthday. Thank you.”
“That’s what big brothers are for,” Simon said kindly. “I mean, you should be with family on your- Oh! Here we go . . .”
The telecon screen came to life, displaying an unfamiliar communication company logo in Chinese. Then the picture cleared into a standard wave feed, though an encryption algorithm ran across the bottom.
Two middle-aged people in some sort of office looked at each other confusedly, then realized that their screen was active, as well.
“Mother?” River whispered. “Daddy . . . ?” she squealed.
. END OF PART ONE
Sunday, June 10, 2007 9:49 PM
Sunday, June 10, 2007 10:03 PM
Sunday, June 10, 2007 10:06 PM
Monday, June 11, 2007 3:56 AM
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Wednesday, June 13, 2007 5:23 AM
Saturday, June 16, 2007 7:58 AM
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