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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - SUSPENSE
The conference starts, and Mal isn't as comfortable going undercover with Inara as he expected.
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 856 RATING: 0 SERIES: FIREFLY
Book woke up while it was still dark outside the cabin windows, turned on the smallest light that he could find in the living room, and immediately settled down to his usual morning devotionals. After a short prayer, and pondering what the Lord Jesus would think of the scrape that he'd gotten into, he moved on to the next step of a reading from the Holy Book. At first he'd been about to go looking for his book bag, then remembered that it hadn't been next to the convertible couch when he'd gone to bed last night. He'd started recited Psalm 23 from memory instead of making a big deal over looking for it. However, just after passing through the valley of the shadow of death, his eye caught a shelf of antique books in the corner of the room, and he decided to get up and take a look, hoping that the Maren's wouldn't feel offended by his presumption. A simply bound volume reading 'King James translation, Old and New Testament' caught his eye, so he pulled it out and opened the Codex.
"My son, forget not my law; but let thy heart keep my commandments."
He almost blinked in surprise at the verse that his eyes first fixed upon. Was the Lord Most High actually trying to tell him something? Checking around the margins of the page, he managed to orient himself - Proverbs, chapter 3 - and this line was verse one. Well, first, what did it mean or imply for him? The laws of God were not the laws of man or of the Alliances that men formed - but had his heart kept the commandments well? Sighing, Derrial Book read through the rest of the passage, not rushing, but breaking off to consider an implication after each verse or sometimes even in the middle of one.
He had just gotten to the bit about the Lord God scorning scorners and giving grace to the lowly when the full overhead lights clicked on, and he looked to the door in surprise. "Oh - Good morning, Don," Rickard said. "I... I don't mean to disturb you if you're busy, just wanted to let you know that I'll be starting breakfast presently."
"Thank you - you're very kind, considering the errand that brings us here," Book said honestly.
"No, come on - I was in the mood to make pancakes, and bacon, fruit salad, hash browns, toast, and sausages anyway. Once you've got started, it's no extra bother to prepare more of each. And I didn't really think that you'd threaten to shoot us just to get your share."
"Well, no, probably not, though I wouldn't really put it past Charles," Book answered. "I really hope you didn't mind that I raided your bookshelf."
"Oh, certainly not. What caught your eye for early morning reading?"
"Well, *the* Book." He showed the cover and the spine, though at that distance Rickard might not be able to make out anything identifying. Derrial hesitated for just a second before continuing - Malcolm had enjoined him to not reveal anything personal to the Marens, especially his status as a shepherd... but he could not quite bear to hide entirely the fact that he was a person of faith. Not all who believed in God, who made him a part of their lives, joined the ministry so directly, after all... and Rickard would hardly suspect someone holding him prisoner of being a Shepherd of the Lord's flock. "Just doing a morning bible study - couldn't find my own books, so I borrowed yours."
"Perfectly all right. I'll just give you as much time as you need."
"Thank you. Almost done, I suspect. Should be there to put the bacon on by the time you've mixed up batter."
Derrial considered the chapter a bit longer, and then reflected that possibly the book had just fallen open more or less at random. Proverbs was good stuff, but this section was really just what the name implied - a collection of maxims, little jewels in themselves, but not forming any greater structure easily. If the words of the Lord to him, today, were here, then he'd have to listen harder to hear their true meaning, and he couldn't simply sit all day and wait for the wisdom of God to come to him, so he went out to the kitchen to help out with breakfast.
"I wonder if Charles really did stay up on watch all night," he mused out loud as Juli entered the kitchen, wearing a blue dressing gown with black silhouettes decorating it here and there, and her brown hair pulled back into a single tail down at her neck.
"I think I heard him up and moving very early this morning, indeed," Rickard said affably. "Just before I got up myself."
"Then maybe he didn't let himself turn in until he saw that I had my light on," Derrial realized. "Interesting. He does take certain parts of his work very seriously."
"I *am* curious about your ordinary line of work," Juli said, as she stacked fruit from the refrigerating crisper onto a wooden cutting board. "I realize that there are certain things that you can't tell us lest we could identify you to the authorities, but still - robbing scientific conferences can't be all that you do, all the time. There are hardly enough of them, even if you go to all of this trouble for each one."
Derrial laughed himself, splitting his attention between the bacon and the sausage, spread out on different halves of a huge rectangular griddle. "There is really nothing that we do 'all the time.' I'm constantly surprised at the sort of things that... that we end up in the middle of."
"Can't you tell us a few stories?" Juli insisted. "Something that wouldn't really identify anybody. You can change names to protect the guilty."
"We'll see, but after breakfast is over," he said.
"Alright," she said, sighing. "Oh, you know what would be great? Waffles. We still have that contraption that Sarah Reese and that lawyer friend of hers got us as a wedding gift. Oh!!"
"Contraption?" Derrial asked, confused.
"It's a waffle iron - but Juli tends to think that waffles come out of boxes with the blue sun logo on them in the freezer section of a store," Rickard said, chuckling.
"Oh!!" Juli repeated, with somehow a layer of extra emphasis on the word. Rickard turned to look at her. "I - where did they leave that copy of the list?"
"Which list?" Rickard asked.
"The list of conference attendees?" Book asked. "I think it's on one of the end tables in the living room. Do you think that one of the people you just mentioned are on it?"
Juli nodded, and Book immediately abandoned the meat to go and fetch the second printout slip that had been provided for them. "Sarah Reese can't be at the conference - she died about a year back, remember honey? She accidentally got exposed to activated prions because one of her lab hands wasn't following proper procedures in the laboratory." He made a brr-brr sound. "It was very unfortunate."
"No, not Sarah. I... sheesh, I can't even remember the name, but if I look at that list."
"But you just said he was a lawyer! What would he be doing at a conference like this? Even if he was there in - well, in a legal capacity, he wouldn't likely be listed as an invitee."
"I'm telling you..." By this point Book was back with the paper, and he handed it to her and immediately went back to the range to check on the meat. A few of the sausages had started to stick. "Flander Sheldon. There can't be many with THAT name, in the entire 'verse. Maybe... maybe he went into the sciences after we knew him. People have made career changes like that before."
"But they don't reach the highest rungs of the profession in just a few years after making the change, and Bentley isn't inviting anyone who hasn't reached the highest rungs in science. If he had the... the TALENT to get that far, that fast, then he simply wouldn't have chosen the law first. I don't believe that."
"I... I don't know, then," Juli groaned, waving the large chopping knife around dramatically in her left hand, while still holding the printout with her right and glancing back at it. "But I'm not going to let this go without at least looking into it. Can - can somebody research the name on the Cortex?"
"Certainly," Book said. "I think I will make the first inquiries myself, though - and AFTER breakfast is finished."
"Your friends might need to know this."
"Perhaps - but we're not contacting them. That isn't the plan." Book sighed. "I'll be good to have something more than a possible coincidence of names to tell them if they check in tonight, though."
"Alright." Juli put the printout down and sank to her chair.
"Could you do me one favour, darling?" Rickard asked.
"Either start chopping fruit again, or put the knife down?"
"Oh!" She stared at the knife for a moment, and then returned to the task at hand.
The waffles were excellent with a little bit of genuine honey.
"Alright, so if you manage to fuse four hydrogen nuclei together, you wouldn't get helium, you'd get Beryllium four," Simon rephrased the points that Kaylee had been drilling him on for quite a while. "Beryllium four isn't anything close to stable, so it would... would beta-decay twice, and leave you with helium four, which is very stable, and in fact harmless, except for giving you an annoying high-pitched voice if you breathe it directly."
"Right," Kaylee said, smiling at how he put that. She hadn't mentioned the helium voice herself.
"So some of the power from the hydrogen to helium fusion can go to separating more hydrogen from the water," he reported. "Oxygen from the water and helium from the fusion are expelled from the engine. So far, so good. But beta decay usually involves the emission of high-energy particles that can be fairly dangerous to people. Baty engines don't give off that radiation, so somehow they've found a perfect way to absorb or neutralize it."
"Okay, so... but those beta particles are real physical things, and they can't just get wished away," Kaylee said. "Conservation of charge, conservation of spin and so on. You know what I mean by that?"
"Everything has to be somewhere," Simon agreed. "I think I got it. Wait a second... charge - isn't a beta particle negative charge? An unbound electron?"
"Four hydrogen nuclei - four protons, have a charge of plus four. A helium nucleus has a charge of plus four. ADDING negative charges to the system doesn't make things balance."
"Ooh, whoops - good catch," Kaylee admitted, chuckling. "It must be an anti-beta - a free positron. Does that give you the hint of how to balance the books?"
"Um - I'm not sure it does," Simon said, frowning. "I was thinking that you could send the beta particles into other nearby nuclei - like the oxygen from the water... but what's most oxygen?"
"Look it up," Kaylee said with a little smile. "It's right there in the computer - try the narrow table of nuclides... no, that doesn't have distribution data, does it? But you'll want to have it available. Look up the oxygen article."
"Hmm..." Simon accessed the files in the physics cyclopedia that she'd indicated and considered the results. "Ninety-nine and a quarter percent O 16. So if that nucleus captures a positron, an anti-beta..." He frowned, trying to work it out. "It'll go up by one spot on the periodic table, without changing its atomic weight?"
"Yeah, that's it."
"Which gets us - um, one up from oxygen is... fluorine. That's nasty stuff, very poisonous, especially free fluorine atoms. And is F sixteen - you know, stable? Right, check the listing." Simon accessed more data. "Doesn't look like it. The only naturally occurring stable isotope is nineteen. So much for my brilliant notion."
"Yeah, it's a wrong track," Kaylee admitted. "There are stable nuclei that could take a positron hit and stay safely stable - but they're all heavier elements, further up the chart. And the problem for something like a Baty engine, are that you won't have a steady supply of heavy elements under field conditions, even something like iron you can't keep feeding into the unit, not really."
"Okay, so then - what? Do we have any idea what they're doing with those free positrons? They can't be just sweeping them under the rug, though I suppose it's possible that nobody but the Alliance scientists know..."
"No, it's not quite THAT much of a mystery," Kaylee said, laughing. "What's happened is that you're focused a bit too narrowly on the nucleus. It's important what goes on there, definitely - but if you look only at nuclei, you're not seeing something important."
"Huh?" And then, things started to fall into place for Simon. "Of course! The nuclei are the hearts of atoms, which have their own electrons somewhere nearby - impossible to say where, by Heisenberg indeterminacy, but probably not too far. All normal matter already balances up in charge that way. The four hydrogen nuclei come with one electron each, but the helium atom only needs two to stay balanced. Our two positrons could collide with the extra two, releasing some extra energy... doesn't quantum physics make it problematic to arrange that much lepton particle-antiparticle annihilation to order, though? If we can't tell where the electron is, or the anti-electron - how do we make sure that they collide?"
"That part, I couldn't tell you much about," Kaylee admitted ruefully. "Maybe Rickard's notes about the work he did on the similar J12 local power processor will help. I don't think that everybody coming to this conference with a nuclear physics background will know the details, though."
"Okay, so - did I do well, teach?" Simon winked at her. "Can I press the whizz-bang button and take a break?"
"The whizz-bang button?" she repeated, laughing.
"I'll take that as a yes," he said, minimizing the files that he'd called up on the display screen and pressing a small purple icon in the corner. A number of funny sound effects rang out, along with a display of fireworks that were apparently shooting down balloons. "You can press yours too - you did a great job as a teacher."
"I have one too? Where was it... ohh." Kaylee tapped her icon, and got a display of a rocket taking off from a mountainside, racing over the surface of a barren moon, and plunging into some sort of mysterious vortex in space, to the appropriate sound effects. "Clever. Is it different every time?"
"Not really, but I think this version has about a dozen variants, cycled through with a little random variation now and then. Childish, yes, but it's a cheap way to give yourself a reward for your accomplishments."
"Cool," Kaylee agreed, and twisted her chair about somewhat to face Simon's. He followed suit. "Yes, you did do well - I realize that it's a bit basic in terms of what's probably going to be talked about in this conference, but I didn't know how else to start than drilling you on the fundamentals."
"No, I completely understand," Simon said, reaching out to the middle of the bunk, where they'd put some snacks - far enough away to be out of convenient reach while the two of them were studying, but not far away as to absolutely require someone to stand up and walk around the little cabin. "In a weird way, it seems strange to hear you talking about the technical details of engines and nuclear processes... I mean, I guess I always suspected that you knew your stuff that way, but when it comes to Serenity, you always seem so down home, and - well, 'holistic.'"
"Huh?" Kaylee took a package of puffed nuts from him and tore it open. "Like the shepherd?"
"Oh, no, it doesn't mean quite the same thing as 'holy' - more like, natural and instinctive. Looking at the way the sum total of a thing behaves instead of getting bogged down on the details."
"Oh, okay!" Kaylee agreed cheerfully. "Yeah, that's the way I guess I like to relate to a ship too, as if it were alive, but I know that it literally isn't, and that sometimes nothing is going to help but understanding the implications of Boyle's law in the hydraulic systems - or the details of the nuclide interactions in a fusion reaction." She chuckled. "Some of this stuff I learned back in grade school, actually - the schools in my area stressed science in the curriculum for everybody... and then I learned some more over the Cortex after Mal signed me on, because I was so nervous that something was going to happen that I couldn't handle, and I'd get us all blown up, or badly hurt, or strand the ship somewhere in the middle of an important job like Bester did."
"Bester!" Simon said suddenly, pointing a finger at her as he sipped from a small bottle of something green. "Bester. For the second time of asking I put it to you, Kaylee Frye... what exactly happened with Bester, and Mal hiring you?"
"Umm!" She shook her head in consternation. "I... I think I'll hold out for the third time of asking, since that's the way it always goes in the stories... and just what's in that stuff?"
"Hmm." Simon considered it. "It says that it's Jabra water, and that it's made from fungus grown on Muir..."
"Give it here," Kaylee ordered, and even tapped her foot until Simon did hand over the bottle. "I've heard a' Jabra. Really powerful booze, no matter what it's truly made from. NO booze while we're studying." She snickered. "Wouldn't want you to take off your clothes and start reciting verse, even if there isn't a statue for you to climb on here."
"Oh, alright," Simon muttered. "I do think some of what you were mistaking for the effects of alcohol was just natural high spirits."
"Probably true - it couldn't a hit you that hard anyway. But still... we'll take a toast from this when we pull off the heist."
"How are you going to keep it until then?" Simon pointed out. "The lid was one of those easy-twist-offs that are next to impossible to put back on again."
"Huh." Kaylee avoided the question by just putting the bottle on the floor well out of the way for the time being. "So, what do you think I'd most need to know to cover for Juli?"
"I'm not sure," he admitted. "Bio-sciences are probably going to be in the back seat for this symposium anyway, on account of its subject matter, and she couldn't give me many specifics. The main research breakthrough that Juli Clarkson-Maren had to her credit before disappearing with Rickard was the co-development of an automated biochemical 'factory' capable of assembling DNA and RNA code matching arbitrary input strings, and since she retreated to that cabin, she seems to have been working on ways to test the effects of various enzymatic proteins on the development of lingual engrams in the brain during childhood."
"Wow," Kaylee muttered.
"Did you understand any of that?"
"We can go through it in more detail later," Simon told her with a smile. "In the meantime, let's start with something a little bit more on the button, and talk about the effects of radiation on living things. Sound good?"
"Yeah, fine place to start," Kaylee agreed. "I learned it by the gun metaphor."
"Okay, I'm not sure if I've heard that one," Simon admitted, smiling. "Care to go over it for me?"
"Well, because you've got particles of different weights involved, the impact and type of damage are determined by that, as well as the energy level. Alpha particles are a bit like catapult shot - heavy, but not really coming at you that hard. Of course, if you get an alpha source inside you, you're toast, but otherwise they can't penetrate far."
"Alright, I'm with you so far. What about beta particles?"
"More like a bow and arrow - not nearly as heavy, but they go deeper and cause more damage. And gamma rays would be like lasers - no weight to them at all, but they burn narrow and deep."
"Hmm." Simon considered. "That's alright for an overview. How about we get into more specifics, especially for treatment? I think that patching somebody up for alpha rays the same way you would for a catapult shot wouldn't work too well."
"Well, no, of course not. Go ahead." Kaylee turned her seat back to the forward position and waved at the screen.
"Here you go," Zoe said, handing Mal a straight green stick that looked like an ordinary data pen. "Tap it twice here on the far end to tell us that you're close and Wash should come in for a landing. Tap it twice here near the middle, and we'll meet you partway to the conference site."
"And if we tap twice on the bottom end?" Inara asked.
"Emergency warning," Mal told her, "of course. Everything's going wrong, and if they don't hear from us more directly, they should head back to Whittier, pick up Jayne, Book, and head for the black."
"What, no rescue mission?" Zoe said.
"Do you really want to go up against a good two dozen Alliance security guards?" Zoe just shrugged.
"Alright I guess," Inara sighed. "But the next time I volunteer to help you people out on a heist... could you please slap me really hard across the face and tell me to talk a bit more sense?"
"Don't say that if you don't mean it," Zoe answered immediately.
"Hello River," Mal said, nodding gravely at the little girl who was walking over towards the shuttle dock from the cargo bay stairs. "Don't worry about Simon - we're going to bring him back, safe and sound."
"I'm not worried about him," River said softly. "Just wish that I could go down to the conference myself. Mycroft Sheldon's last paper about the implications of alternating current standardization in standalone nuclear generation equipment in this past year's winter edition of Atomic Energy Quarterly was fascinating. If they make progress on the miniaturization front, I expect that he'll push for the Backpack Baty to switch to direct voltage."
Zoe, Inara, and Mal all exchanged looks. "You know, we can probably bring her along as a child prodigy," Mal muttered. "She'll dazzle anybody there with techno-babble, if nobody gets her started on cows instead."
"Maybe another time," Zoe told him, shaking her head. "Now get going."
"Alright. Bye River," Inara said, and led the way into her richly decorated vessel. Mal sat in the main chamber, awkwardly waiting at the tea table as Inara separated shuttle one from Serenity and put it on course for Bellerophon. "You know, you can come up here and sit in the co-pilot's seat if you promise not to touch the flight controls," she told Mal at that point. "It'll probably be less awkward than..."
"If I *promise* not to touch the flight controls?" Mal crowed. "Oh, that's rich. This is still my shuttle, you know that. Just because you're the lessor..."
"Serenity is your ship too, but that doesn't mean I'd feel comfortable knowing that you were steering her," Inara said. "You have a great many strengths, Mal; I've come to learn that over the time we've known each other. Acceptable piloting skill is not one of them."
Mal decided not to argue about that one. "Okay, should we maybe go over the layout of the Bentley building again, just to be sure that everyone's clear on the territory?"
"Very well." Inara tapped a few buttons, and the diagram that had been showing Bellerophon and its parent planet, Georgia, turned into a blueprint schematic. "The mansion is definitely large, with the term 'palace' not being entirely inappropriate as an alternate description. The main house is six stories high, with a floor plan of fifteen thousand square feet on each level, and there are substantial expansion wings to the north, south, and east. Badger's information indicates that the experimental laboratories are in the south wing, with lodging for invitees, brainstorming rooms, and press briefings in the central building."
"Right, so that's where we're going to be limited," Mal said, zeroing in on the key issue. "The credentials that you got for me won't let either of us into the south section - and that's where our objective will be. The disassembled Baty engine."
"Not completely disassembled," Inara corrected didactically. "If the guts of it were taken apart, I suspect it wouldn't be much good to Badger - he can guess what the parts are, and knows that they're all available on the open market. It's how they're all connected and adjusted to make the engine operational, along with the ability to experiment carefully and see what the results are."
"Well, yeah," Mal said. "Forgive me for employing a shorthand, instead of saying 'the engine that's all together except for its casing.'"
"Lazy speech patterns don't save any time if they're not accurate, Mal."
"But you knew what I meant... oh, never mind. I just thought of something else. The invitees who are going to be working in the south - people like Simon and Kaylee, under their fake identities - they'll be sleeping in the main building too?"
"That's what the plan seems to be. Obviously there'll be some need for security at the border between the two buildings. Probably they'll block everything off but one passageway, since the connection from the main building to the south wing is three stories high and more than a single room wide. Much too much to guard."
"Hmm... maybe there'll be some way to UNBLOCK one of those routes without making it obvious," Mal mused. "I wish there weren't so many unknowns at this point."
"Yes, well, have you ever met Joseph Barons, from Eletia Island?"
"No, I..." Mal just caught himself. "I haven't had the pleasure. Remember taking a trip to Eletia a few summers back, though, to meet with the local historical society. Beautiful place, Jumped outta that pine tree house into the teardrop lake. Boy, that's a rush."
"Not a bad cover," Inara admitted. "Though I hope that you'd take the hint a bit quicker when we were there, and not have to cover the slip."
"What if Barons was there, would I need to change my answer in that case?" Mal asked.
"Hmm... we may need to work out a signal for that," Inara admitted. "And how did you know that bit about the tree house and jumping off it into the lake."
"You told me about that, months ago," Mal said, as if that were obvious.
"Yeah. One of the first times that we really talked much, after you came to join us. As I remember, there was Londinium gin involved in the weekend, and not just a little of it."
"Well, let's see... what else is there that we need to cover?" Mal asked, and Inara shrugged. "The mansion definitely looked pretty from the outside. Don't you have some fun facts on me about what style of architecture it is or who supervised the building?"
Inara laughed. "I guess I didn't think that was relevant."
"Does that mean you don't know, or just that you didn't want to say?"
"Don't know. You can look it up for yourself."
"Ehh." Mal pulled up an information query on the computer, and then seemed to think better of it. "I... I do appreciate your help on this thing, Inara, but I worry that you're getting too close to our dirty dealings, and you'll pay a price for it eventually. So I *will* slap you across the face next time if I have to, though I'd rather not and will probably start with telling you not to be so foolish first."
She smiled slightly. "Thanks for being concerned."
It was half a rebuke, and Mal felt it like her words were a slap across *his* face. "You... you weren't serious, back on the ship? More than anything else, you still don't want me or anybody else telling you what your business is?"
"Well, it's not that. Just... I *have* been involved in crime before this. In a weird way, that's how we met the first time, even if you don't know that part."
"Well, now I'm confused," Mal said. "I thought that you looked me up in Cara Dawn, because you'd seen my flyer about having a shuttle to rent, based off a freelance Firefly traveling between the border and the rim."
"True in a way, but certainly not the start of the story," Inara said. "There was Paquin, for instance. We didn't actually see each other on Paquin, but - you'd been hired by one of Niska's lackeys to steal a speck of Dubnium from the Carnival fireworks, yes?"
"Umm... Zoe and I, yes. What does any of this have to do with you?"
"I'd been hired by a man of... certain unusual talents, who was also after that same item. He was going to open negotiations with Niska after he'd gotten the Dubnium."
"And he hired you for what?" Mal asked. "Just as an appropriate escort, to help explain why he was on the moon at that time?"
"Would I have brought this up if that was all of it?" Inara asked, sighing. "No. I was in to help him out a bit more directly than that, though not to be there when he actually went for the target item. For one thing, I was supposed to help him make contact with one Barrett Thomas, who was supervising the special security detail, and..."
"Kaylee's old friend's sugar daddy!" Mal exclaimed, stunned. "Did - did you meet HER on Paquin? Kaylee?"
"Yes, a few times. I had lunch with her and Melany one time - and I think that 'sugar daddy' is a bit of an unfair characterization of Melany and Barrett's relationship, just because he came from more money than she did..."
"Never mind that," Mal said. "But Kaylee never told me about - no, she did mention that there had been another guy, when she went back to get more information out of Barrett before we made our move - and that guy showed up, gave me a nasty knife cut when the heist was going down. Was that your client?"
"Yes, I believe so," Inara said carefully. "I was there on that later occasion too, with Kaylee and Barrett - my client and I were double-teaming Barrett, and I think we gave Kaylee all the intelligence she needed between us. Including a data pen full of security codes, that I carefully pick-pocketed from Barrett, copied, and then Kaylee swiped the copy on me."
"Interesting." Mal said. "But when you showed up again on Ezra, even then she didn't admit to having met you before." Something new occurred to Mal. "Did you and Kaylee meet again on Ezra? Did she really give you the notion about renting my shuttle?"
"Yes," Inara admitted. "Don't give her a hard time about the secrecy thing. This was a long time ago, she hadn't been with Serenity long herself... and even so, I don't think she'd have hidden it from you under ordinary circumstances. Not sure what it was about me that inspired such unexpected loyalty in her, but..." she trailed off uncertainly.
"Well, yes, I'll have to think hard about if I even want to mention it to her," Mal said. "But thank *you* for telling me the truth, finally."
There was yet another long awkward silent pause. "How much longer before we hit Bellerophon atmosphere?"
"I think that we already have," Inara said. "In a manner of speaking. We'll reach the turbulent zone in maybe two and a half minutes."
"Welcome, welcome," the well-dressed man said as Mal and Inara emerged from the shuttle onto an open landing field. Inara had picked a spot that would be hard to block off to prevent them from boarding or taking off again, without making it too immediately obvious. "You must be the exquisite Inara Serra, though descriptions of your loveliness pale before the reality. And I'm so pleased to meet your friend, umm..."
"Nathaniel Hammond," Mal offered, extending his hand for the person who he assumed to be their host. "I'm very happy that you could find a spot for me. Don't have a head for the math, but I've always been *so* excited about fusion science."
"Pleased to make your acquaintance," Inara agreed. "You would be Amos Bentley?"
"Just call me Bentley, please, everybody does," he told them both. "I *despise* my first name, but somehow it never seemed to be worth the effort of getting it legally changed, you know? Well, did you bring your things?" Mal lifted his hands, which each had suitcases in them. Inara was only carrying a small purse herself - most of her things were in the larger bag that Mal was hefting. "Well, come along now. You're among the last to make it, and we'll be sitting down to the opening dinner soon."
"Alright." As he led the way to the palace, Mal considered Bentley. For a fantastically rich scientist, he didn't seem very extreme in any obvious way - several inches shorter than Mal, not even as tall as Inara in her heels, growing a bit pudgy but not obviously running to fat. His skin was a rich brown, matched by what was left of his hair pretty closely, and he wore what seemed to be a bright blue leisure suit or something of the sort. Aside from a bit of flamboyance, he seemed grounded and friendly.
Inara started chatting excitedly to Bentley, asking about why he'd decided to organize the conference, and who from among the more famous invitees had responded. Mal couldn't tell if she was trying to elicit a remark about 'the incredibly reclusive Marens' or just gathering background information, or simply trying to blend in with his expectations for that matter. Mal should probably be trying to push the conversational ball himself, come to think of it, if he was trying to stay in character as a dilettante interested enough in the conference to broker an invitation through a Companion. "So, what's on the agenda? Will the actual experimentation start tomorrow morning?"
"Perhaps - or maybe you'd characterize it better as hands-on learning than serious experimentation," Bentley said expansively. "Especially when it comes to nuclear power systems, tinkering without a plan is a great recipe for disaster. A few specialists who haven't worked directly with anything like the Baty engine are going to be going through planned laboratory tutorials in order to get up to speed, as it were, while the rest of our brilliant minds start devising plans and possibilities on - well, not quite paper, as much fun as the alliteration would be. On whiteboards, and computer sketching programs, even detailed simulations."
"Fascinating," Mal agreed. "Will I be able to see any of this myself?"
"Well, as I believe Inara was supposed to explain to you," he pointed out, "you will not be allowed anywhere near the laboratories or the engine parts yourself, Mister Hammond. I had to make certain promises to the Alliance Nuclear Energy Regulatory Board simply to get this conference off the ground, and considering that you're a self-invited observer with no serious academic or scientific credentials, it simply wouldn't be permitted. You could watch laboratory sessions over the closed-circuit television, or perhaps attend a planning session in person, as long as you're careful to not speak unless granted leave by the participants."
"Alright," Mal said, choosing that submitting quietly to these restrictions would be better in the long run than complaining about them. "And is anything else planned for... tonight? After the dinner?"
Bentley grinned. "There's cocktail hour, and an optional gaming session. I happen to have a close relationship with important people in Blue Sun's digital recreations division, and so an advance beta copy of 'Unification war: Purple Heart' is available."
Mal instantly did his best to cover the queasiness he always felt when he heard about the battles that he'd taken part in being turned into entertainment titles by the victors. "Fantabulous."
Bentley kept rambling about this and that, covering the later agenda for the conference, his favourite games, other social events that would be available, and his architectural inspirations for the mansion, while leading them into the main house, and over to an elevator. He introduced them to several other people; some scientist guests, a few other socialite observers, and many of his household staff, who he often had to 'take a moment' with, but didn't seem at all inclined to turn the task of guiding them to their rooms over to a lower functionary and get back to doing something more important. The elevator only took them up one floor, and then travelled horizontally for maybe eighty feet as nearly as Mal could judge, before letting them out. The door was less than a minute's walk away, but Mal hadn't quite managed to keep track of the path that they'd taken, and there were no room numbers and few landmarks.
"The suite is lovely, Bentley," Inara volunteered after taking only the briefest of looks inside. "How long do I have to freshen up before dinner, and where will we need to find our way to?"
"Let's see..." Bentley checked his personal chrono, which wasn't on his wrist like normal but tucked into his pocket and had a soft red string attached to it. "After 1800 local time... I'm afraid it's only twenty-two minutes away, but nobody will mind if you're a bit late. And, I guess I had better head off and..."
"How do we get there?" Mal asked a bit more sharply. "Sorry, but - your house is so vast, a person could get lost in it, and I'd hate to have to bother your staff just to..."
"Oh, of course," Bentley fished in his pants pocket this time, producing a small black object that had a rounded point at both ends. "The Tarzed dining room," he announced clearly, holding it within a few inches of his mouth, and suddenly - a tracer of yellow light emerged from one of the points, arcing through mid-air and leading back down the hallway the way that they had come. "This will lead you there, or anywhere else you ask it for within the house, though it does need the destination to be phrased as it is listed in the database. Please use common sense and don't poke about someplace you should know they you aren't to go, and thanks." He handed the device to Mal, the yellow tracer of light shifting slightly to keep to the same overall destination, and hurried off - passing through the beam slightly, and making it dance about in an attempt to avoid him.
"Alright." Mal loitered in the doorway for another moment, hoping against hope that Simon and Kaylee would show up, and then had to admit that hope was futile. He closed the door, looked around for Inara - and couldn't immediately see her. "Inara?"
"I'll be in here for a few minutes," she called from behind another door, her words muffled by the sounds of running water. Ah, alright. Mal hefted up the suitcases again and brought them into what looked like the main bedroom. Only one bed, though it was a fancy one, fit for a king both by size and quality. Would it be better to stick to their own sides of the bed, or have someone look for a sofa in the rest of the suite? Mal stuck their bags on either side of the bed for now.
One thing was nagging at him. He had seen no trace of security at all - not before they landed, (well, except for a small alliance forces air car on the landing field,) and not even as they entered the mansion. Nobody had asked for their invitations or checked them for weapons.
They couldn't have omitted such verifications, though. Were the security arrangements so sophisticated as to be unnoticeable? That boded ill for their scheme, in all sorts of ways.
And, to speak of security... what about observation, here in their suite? Were they to be listened in on, even observed by camera and 'closed circuit television'? Would anyone think it odd that a rich man and a Companion would not engage in the act of sex? (To say nothing else of other peculiarities that might arise about their interactions.)
It wasn't that many minutes before Inara emerged from the bathroom - just long enough for Mal to find a drawing room and a couch there, (though not one that would be well suited as a spare bed.) Her dark hair was slicked back and somehow damp, but not completely drenched, and she wore only a black under-slip, with the gown that she'd landed in slung over her arm. "Alright, in," she ordered. "You do something to clean yourself up as best you like, and give me ten minutes to finish getting dressed."
Mal shrugged and filed on into the richly fitted bathroom.
TO BE CONTINUED...
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