BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - SUSPENSE

CHRISK

The Bellerophon Baty Engine Heist - Chapter 5
Monday, June 1, 2009

The conference's first night proceeds, and a few dangerous lines are crossed.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 912    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

Part E

"We shouldn't have come early," Kaylee whispered in Simon's ear. "I never like coming to a partly beforehand and waiting for things to start."

"Well, what makes you think in terms of it not having started?" Simon replied, a bit more loudly but still trying to not be overheard. "Just because the host hasn't gotten up on that stage and made a speech, or the main course getting served out?"

"Yeah, that," she answered. "Or even appetizers getting served out would help." Simon went and pointed off behind her, and she turned to look in that direction. "Oh. Well, them getting here would help."

"We're not in a very densely populated part of the floor," he reminded her, which was true, and was something that they had both felt grateful for. However, with his words Simon arguably jinxed them, because only a few minutes a trio of stately, more-than-middle-aged oriental ladies stepped near to the table that they had planted themselves at and bowed.

"I would not wish to intrude on your time, but would you perhaps be Mister and Missus Maren?" the rightmost lady asked in a melodic voice.

"Miz Juli Maren," Kaylee said, with a fairly good imitation of the real Juli Maren's acerbic snap. "So pleased to meet you."

"You and your husband honour the conference with your presence, Miz Maren," the next lady said, "especially we of Bei Zhing Analyticals, who have laboured for years to refine your discoveries."

"My, umm... my discoveries?" Simon blurted out.

"No, I regret if my associate was not clear," the last lady intoned. "It is your wife's development of the genetic code machine that we are seeking to improve."

"Wow, really," Kaylee said. "Thanks - it's always nice to know that the work is continuing, though that... machine wasn't all my work. May I ask your names?"

"Certainly. I am Anara Liu, and attending with me are my sister Jian Doe, and our long-time colleague Janet Wing."

"Well, it's so nice to meet you... oh," Kaylee broke off in midsentence as Simon kicked her a bit emphatically under the table.

"Honey, haven't you told me about the medical work that these ladies have done in massive radiation burn reconstruction?" Simon fed her the hint shamelessly. "It's fascinating stuff... I'm not sure I knew that they were building on your own research."

"Well, I didn't want to sound my own horn or anything," Kaylee muttered uncomfortably.

"A most noble attitude," Janet told her. "Well, I believe that we are being encouraged to take our seats, so we shall leave you to..."

"Have you been assigned seats elsewhere that you have to go to?" Simon asked. "There's no sign of anybody else over here, and I would hope that we..."

"Regrettably, the Wrime brothers have already insisted upon our company," Jian told him. "Perhaps there are still two seats free at their table? I am sure that they would be fascinated to meet both of you..."

"No, it appears that will not be possible on this occasion," Anara cut her sister off. "Perhaps another time." And they hurried off toward a knot of people halfway across the room.

Perhaps that was for the best, Simon thought to himself as their table filled up with people who didn't really express an interest in either Kaylee or himself, even after Kaylee had introduced herself and him in order to be polite. Some appeared to be servitors in Bentley's household who weren't needed to prepare or serve dinner, and had asked to attend. Others were local researchers who had worked with Bentley many times before. Simon suspected that their host might have arranged to surround the hermits with people who he could trust to not overwhelm them with questions and attention that they weren't well prepared to handle.

"Thank you, everybody, for coming to my little scientific get-together," Bentley announced from the head table, to a muted swell of cheers and laughs. "Hopefully we'll get some good work done here over the next twelve days, and also have a reasonably good time together, catching up and generally exchanging ideas that might become incredible breakthroughs a few years further on. A few notes, though - you may not have seen the Alliance security men around much yet, but they are paying attention. With the exception of the entrance to the research labs in the south wing, which is in the emerald hall on the first floor, you probably will NOT see them unless you're somewhere that you're not supposed to be. Information on restricted areas and other 'do not dos' is available inside the desk in your suites, on the mansion cortex node, or from any of my household staff.

"And that's just about it. I'll have more information for you about this evening's activities and tomorrow's meetings in an hour, after we've all had a chance to attack the main course, so please, don't go wandering off before then." There was a short pause. "Unless you really need to use the privacy, of course, in which case please have a friend listen for you and tell you the headlines. That's all."

-----------

Mal looked up at the various couples that were starting to take to the cleared dance floor not far away from where he sat, and then over to Inara. "What do you think?" he whispered. "Do we dare tempt fate?"

"No, I'd just as soon not," she told him, and sighed. "Unless you see someone *we recognize* out there."

Mal just nodded evenly and did another scan of the crowd, without much hope. He'd been looking for Simon and Kaylee everywhere, but hadn't spotted them, and was starting to actually worry that they'd met with disaster on the trip between moons due to that small and fragile gravity sled, or worse, that their false identities had been discovered already by the Alliance guards or by Bentley himself. And there was just about no way to ask. If there was a chance to return to the room, perhaps he could ask the household computer if it knew anything of the Maren's arrival - but would such inquiries be logged or brought to the attention of a living person?

"Inara, darling!" Mal froze - if somebody had recognized Inara, (which was harmless in itself,) would that be someone who had met him as well, and would recognize him as Mal Reynolds? "Yes, I see you sitting there next to mister Tall; don't pretend that you don't recognize me."

"Hello Oliva," Inara said, smiling graciously and extending a hand. "It's been much too long. How is your family doing?"

"Fabulous, and you? Out onto the border on business?"

"Yes, actually... I do all of my business on the border worlds, or further out, these days," she said to the handsome but petite blonde. "This is Nathaniel Hammond, from Ariel."

"Hello, Nathaniel." Oliva's deep brown eyes stared deep into Mal. "Let me guess... old money, Renaissance man, did everything that you could to score an invitation to the conference. Am I right?"

"Er - yes, actually."

"I can always tell. You don't really look like old money, but there's a certain look for guys who are trying not to look like they're old money."

"Well, thank you," Mal said, trying not to actually grin at the notion.

"And what brings you here, Oliva?" Inara asked.

"Well, I'm covering the conference, of course."

"Covering it?"

"Oh, didn't you know that... oh, actually, you might have left too long ago. I started working for the Metropolis audio news network."

"As a reporter-journalist?" Inara asked, unable to keep a bit of the surprise out of her voice.

"Well, and why not?"

"No particular reason I guess... just never would have expected you to do something so... serious."

"Thanks a lot! I guess you always thought of me as the perfect pampered socialite?"

"No Oliva... you're far from perfect."

Oliva tittered softly "So, Nathaniel - tell me a little bit more about yourself. I know that Inara won't dish up any dirt - she thinks that it's against her Guild vow."

"There's something reassuring about that," Mal said with a little tilt of his head. "So, hmm... not that much to say - grew up in one of them boring safe neighbourhoods of the big city, spent a few years in the company business, selling pocket flashlights and cordless freezers. Now, well, I spend most of my time wandering the 'Verse and looking."

"Looking?" With this, Oliva pulled up an empty seat and waved her hand in a go-on gesture. "Looking for what, exactly?"

"Lots of things," Mal admitted. "Some new gizmo to make my mark with in the business of electronic and battery gadgets. Anything that makes a little bit more sense out of my life than generating more money." He paused artfully. "A woman suitable for serving duty as a wife, and interested in the humble rewards of the post."

"Oh, and if that's something that you're interested in, why are you spending time with this girl," Oliva laughed, thumping Inara good-naturedly with the heel of her hand onto Inara's shoulder, not hard. "She's not the marrying kind, certainly."

"No - but there are other things that she's good at, that make up somewhat for that lack," Mal kidded back.

"Yes, I guess so," Oliva said. "Well, I guess that my story isn't much different. Grew up shuffling back and forth between the country house and the city house. Wild teenage years, married off early to a guy with the right family, the right look, and the right prospects - but not the right spark. One daughter, a girl, who I love dearly, but when Nelson and I split up, she decided that she'd be better off in the long run staying with him and his nanny. That's about when I started looking for something more 'serious' to do with my life, and... Hey, Inara, is there somebody around more interesting than me? Yes, I see you looking across the dance floor and nudging Nathaniel so discretely between at his side."

"Um, sorry, Oliva. Just - well, somebody that he," and she tilted her head towards Mal, "said that he wanted me to see if I could spot. To be honest, I'm not even sure that it was them."

"And who was this 'them' anyway?" Oliva asked.

Inara hesitated for only a moment. "Doctor Professor Zan Parker and Professor Treva."

"Oh, hmm." Oliva turned around to stare in the direction that Inara had been caught looking. "No, I don't see them, but - ooh, if you're interested in meeting interesting delegates from the scientific side, then - yes, I'm *almost* positive that I see Rickard and Juli Maren over there. They haven't been seen much in public for the past two years - I'm honestly surprised that this little affair brought them out."

Mal couldn't help but give Inara a sidelong look. "By all means, could you introduce us?"

"I only met them the once, but - certainly. Come along." So the three of them got up, and made their way to and around the edge of the dance floor, since etiquette would apparently not permit anybody who wasn't dancing to cut through. This was slow business, and more than once Oliva had to stop to make small talk with somebody who wanted to talk to her about the story she'd be filing from the conference, (or a series of short dispatches, actually.) Inara was spotted once more, but managed to avoid getting dragged into more than a short exchange of hellos.

Simon and Kaylee had spotted Inara and Mal as they made their final approach, but as far as Mal couldn't tell, they hadn't paid any attention to Oliva, and he was a little worried about the first impression. If Kaylee greeted one of them, supposed strangers to the great Marens, in preference to the lady who actually had met them before, it might seem suspicious. So, a bit reluctantly, he decided to try a tactic of pre-emptive damage control. "Look, you don't know me, and you don't know my friend, but we've certainly heard about you, Mister Maren, Miz Maren, and... do you remember - um, Oliva... I don't think I caught your last name."

"Forgive me, I did neglect that step of the introductions," Inara said. "Oliva Munson, from the Red mountain Munsons. I... I did give you Nathaniel's full name, yes?" Oliva nodded yes, and opened her mouth, but didn't get a chance to speak.

"Yes, your face is surely familiar, but I'm not quite sure I can place it," Simon said, since he had pretty much managed to get his bearings by this point. "Were... were you there at the reception for the award on the rotating helical stabilizer?"

"No, it was the press conference when you first demonstrated it," Oliva said, smiling slightly. "So pleased to see you haven't abandoned the greater 'verse entirely."

"Well... we had a most pressing reason to make this particular conference," Simon told her. "And - um, well, I suppose it's your turn to do introductions now."

"No, I can't be bothered," she declared. "It's too much responsibility. Introduce yourselves and I'll supervise."

"Well, we do know who you are, as Nathaniel mentioned," Inara said. "My name is Inara Serra, and I'm a registered companion. Originally trained at Madras Temple in the great city of Sihnon, though I've been wandering the outer 'verse for nearly a year now."

"Nathaniel Hammond, from Ariel," Mal volunteered. "General science groupie, family business in portable electronics and gadget sales, wandering searcher and blah blah blah."

"Well, it's so nice to meet you," Kaylee spoke up. "I'm quickly starting to realize why we shunned the company of other professional scientists in the first place - they can be SO boring and full of themselves, can't they? Shoot me if I ever get that stuck up."

"I didn't bring a gun, but if you give me a chance to look for a reasonable substitute," Mal tried to make the line deadpan.

"Oh, come on, stop that," Oliva told him, and he wasn't quite sure what she meant. "Mister Maren, Miz Maren, I'd love to do a feature for the news service on you. What has your life been like this part few years? What exactly were your reasons for coming to this gathering? I'm sure it would make a fascinating piece for our listeners."

"Uh, I'm terribly sorry," Simon managed. "But just because we've come out in public again - it doesn't mean that we want to do a feature piece with the press. I'm sure that you understand."

"Yes, I suppose so," she agreed with a heavy sigh. "But I'm afraid that if you won't agree to be interview subjects, I must go and find other brilliant researchers who will. This might be a night off for you, but it's prime working shift for your humble journalists. Talk amongst yourselves, and a bientot!" Making a baby-wave gesture, she disappeared into the milling throng again.

"Wow," Kaylee whispered, and nodded as Mal shot her an 'on your guard' expression. "Very - very nice to meet you, Miss Serra, Mister Hammond."

"Yes," Simon said, and cocked his head slightly. "Listen - the crowds are more than a bit overwhelming for the two of us, and I don't believe that attendance is mandatory at this point. Would you like to come over to our room and talk in a more relaxed atmosphere? I'd be happy to talk a bit about our glory days or whatever you're interested, and we have some questions for as unlikely a pair as the two of you. What do you say?"

"Certainly," Inara agreed blandly.

"Score!" Mal exulted honestly enough. "Lead on."

There was a household servant at the dining room exit who did ask to see their invitations, (which seemed like an odd time to make that particular request, but maybe that was the point, to ask when it wouldn't be expected,) but then all he did was ask if they'd be needing anything else. Simon said no, and got out his own little direction-finder. "Suite assigned to Rickard and Juli Maren."

After a moment, the curving line of holographic light appeared - theirs was a soft pinkish-red. Mal hadn't realized that they came in different shades, but that might make it easier when different people were trying to use them to get each to their own destinations at the same time. Inara and Kaylee managed to keep up a completely innocuous stream of chatter as they walked, rode the lift up three floors, and then got to a plain wooden door in the midst of an incongruously gleaming steel corridor.

Once they were all inside, Simon chuckled. "We're quite secure in here, I'm pretty sure. Kaylee's swept for bugs, whether visual, optical, insectoid or other." Kaylee let out a little squeal, probably at the mention of 'insectoid bugs.' "And the rooms are well soundproofed, and the door - well, there might be an override computer code, I suppose, but..."

"Well enough," Mal said, keeping his voice quiet just out of habit. "It's good that we've all gotten here okay, but I don't mind saying that I'm a bit concerned about the security precautions. If they're so invisible, then how can we be sure that any plan is workable? We need to know who's were, and what their facilities are, or we might just as well give up and go home."

"Yes, I do understand what you mean, but let's not panic overmuch," Simon said. "The first avenue of attack is the household's computer system. The Alliance security are probably using it, and even if they aren't, if we can tap into household security we should be able to use it to spy on THEM. As researcher invitees, we've got a lot of access into the system - not enough to do that sort of thing directly, of course, but probably enough to find a weak point in the cyber-defences."

"Alright," Inara agreed. "We'll help out as we can with that, but our permissions will be curtailed, and we won't be able to use your credentials without raising a warning flag."

"No, but you can probably go on direct recon throughout the main house without attracting too much attention at first," Kaylee said. "While Mal, or Nathaniel, is keeping busy by soaking up every bit of the science that he can. It won't seem too unusual that you're wandering about while waiting for him to go on a break."

"Hmm..." Mal considered. "That actually doesn't sound like a bad plan, which is too bad as it doesn't sound like much fun for me, but still."

"Yeah, we play the cards as we're dealt them," Simon agreed. "I've got one of these 'catch-up training sessions' in the lab tomorrow, probably all day, while Kaylee is of in a bioscience think storm tanks." He sighed. "We'd better do what we can to drill one more time tonight, after all that's happened."

"Yeah," she agreed more quietly. "Hope that nobody finds it odd that we're missing out on the video gaming."

"Oh, that game is a pile of fei-ou, and none of us should bother with it," Mal muttered. "You should probably make one more appearance at the cocktail hour before the night grows too late, though. Once we're all caught up. No difficulties on the way over?"

"One patrol boat gave us some grief for not having an airlock on the sled," Simon muttered. "Rickard and Juli will have a summons to appear at some or other minor court back on Whittier. Nothing too big."

"If only that's the most of their problems by the time we're done," Inara muttered.

"What about you guys?" Kaylee asked. "How are the rest of the gang?"

"No real word from Jayne and Book," Mal said, "which I hope is good news. We did alright, Zoe and Wash are fine, and your sister said - that she wished that she could be here."

"Huh," Simon muttered.

"Yeah, go figure," Mal added.

------------

"Good night," Book said, and stretched himself out on the convertible. "Could you take care of the light, please?"

"G'night," Jayne grumped in return, and waved a hand in front of the light fixture's sense space. More or less instantly, the front of the cabin was plunged into nothing but the faint light of the stars and a giant golden-brown planet, shining through the windows. After getting a thank-you grunt from the Shepherd, Jayne backed out of the room, turned around, and crept up the corridor to check on the Maren's bedroom.

No sounds of conjugal activities were coming from that direction, that was for certain. Jayne wasn't bragging to consider that he had a finely honed sense of sound, not only in terms of being able to hear very faint things, but interpreting what he heard. There were two separate sounds of breathing coming from behind that door, not quite synchronized but both on the medium-fast kind of frequency, and a few fidgety noises from bed-covers and the creaking of a mattress. Both of the Marens were lying in that bed, to be sure, but if Jayne was right neither of them was sleeping yet, and they weren't talking to each other or doing much of anything else. Probably just laying there and trying to fall asleep.

Would Juli have taken the bed in her lab, if she hadn't felt some kind of odd insistence to live up to her husband's promise that they'd both be in the master bedroom, Jayne wondered. Well, that didn't much matter to him. He'd go and walk around the cabin once, but there was no real point in being alert for the approach of strangers from without - not here where probably no strangers had come for years until the Serenity crew landed. The only justification for Jayne to stay up all night was so that the Maren's themselves wouldn't try anything, and they would be pretty easy to keep an ear on.

So after Jayne finished his walkabout, he settled down in the kitchen and tried to figure out what he could do to keep himself amused this time, after surreptitiously searching all the parts of the cabin where nobody was actually sleeping, the night before.

Make himself something to eat? No, he wasn't still hungry again after dinner, (Well, their dinner, which was more or less his lunch, relatively speaking.)

Ooh! There was that little video player that he'd bought with his part of his share of the meds money over on Ezra. Had he remembered to bring that from Serenity, to pack it in amongst the luggage that he'd kept with him? Suddenly excited, he rushed down the corridor, stumbling and just catching his balance outside the master bedroom. "Is something wrong out there?" Juli called.

Uh-oh. He hadn't realized that either of them would still be awake. "No, sorry, go back to sleep."

"That would logically require that we'd been to sleep already."

"Well, whatever."

The player was at the very bottom of his second pack, and he only found it in the end by emptying everything out of both bags. The earpieces and sound cable were wrapped up in a little tight ball next to it, and seeing them, Jayne suddenly thought of the downside. If he was listening to his favourite comedy program... then he couldn't really listen to what might be happening in the Maren's bedroom, and then what was the point, really, of staying up? The same argument held, at least in part, for jerry-rigging some weights to lift. Gorram it!

Jayne Cobb had never before really wished that he was a reading sort of man, but he was almost tempted to so wish now.

And then it occurred to him - the video player came with a subtitling feature. He hadn't seen the point at the time, of reading what was being said instead of hearing it, but that might be just the ticket now. So he repaired back to the kitchen and started to experiment, and soon had figured out how to watch a program with the volume turned all the way down and easy to read white letters telling him what people were saying. This was reading too, after all, but everything was fine in its proper time and place.

Nothing much happened over the next few hours, as he watched through a few instalments from his collection of 'Eavesdown liner.' A family of owls, or such-like birds, sat upon the roof for a while, Book got up out of bed to use the Privacy facilities, and a pile of dishes in the cupboard settled and tipped over out of the blue, which actually gave Jayne a slight turn until he'd investigated and decided that nothing unusual had been the cause for it, except possibly somebody stacking the pots very precariously during the course of the dinner washing-up.

Then, just as the middle of the night was crawling along and Jayne was starting to get restless and inattentive, there was something. A noise so quiet he couldn't even be sure it was footsteps on the ever so slightly creaky floor, from inside the Maren's room. Somebody - somebody had gotten out of bed perhaps, and was taking extraordinary care to not be heard or noticed in the process. Jayne froze as still and silent as he could be, the video player paused in his hand, wondering how quickly or quietly he could set the thing down and replace it with a gun. He didn't still have Vera with him - he couldn't keep such a big girl with him the whole time in a situation like this, and couldn't bear the thought of somebody grabbing her and using her against him, so had sent her back with Zoe. But he had a little automatic pistol tucked under his arm...

Ever so slowly and quietly the door to the Maren's room drew open. This one Jayne couldn't even hear a whisper's worth, but he could just make out the door in the faint light of the night, (that was one of the reasons that he'd chosen to keep watch from this particular spot in the kitchen,) and though he couldn't see the door moving with his naked eye, like a minute hand on a dial chrono, he could notice a difference when he looked away and then back a bit later.

Once the door had been opened sufficiently, Juli Maren crept out through it, looked both ways - and spotted Jayne down the hall, watching her intently. She seemed to be on the point of exclaiming out loud in surprise, but then caught herself, and slowly swung the door back closed, then made her quiet way down the hall into the kitchen. At that point, she finally broke her silence, though in a whisper. "Charles - hello. I did have the notion that you'd be around somewhere, but wasn't quite expecting that you'd be sitting up and watching our door like a hawk."

"Well, the only point to my being awake through the night is to keep watch on you and your husband as you sleep," Jayne pointed out. "This seemed like a good place for it."

"Hmm." Juli considered. "And that blue sun brand video player that I see in your hand?"

Jayne chuckled. "Just a way of wiling away the time as I stood watch. Didn't keep me from hearing you slip out of bed and walk over to your bedroom door, now did it?"

"Apparently not, I guess. Impressive feat of hearing." Juli crossed back to the kitchen counter, ran a mugful of water from the quiet dispenser tap, and then put it into the microwave oven to warm up some. "You're very observant in a lot of ways, Charles. Have you trained as a wilderness tracker? I know that you normally can't follow a deer at much distance from the sound it's making, but..."

"Now now, Miz Maren." Jayne chuckled softly. "You *know* that I'm not a-s'posed to tell you things about my past, just like that one."

"Yes, I know," Juli admitted quietly. "But I also think that you're going to anyway."

"And why would that be?"

"Because you're bored and I'm okay company in the middle of the night," she answered. "And because if you *don't* satisfy my curiosity, at least a little bit, I'll go back to bed with my husband and leave you out here with just that crummy little video player to keep you entertained."

"Hehe." Jayne shook his head. "I think that you're a little bit full of yourself, darling. The vids make me laugh more than you do, and they don't ask anything of me but my attention." However, he didn't start the unit playing again yet, even when Juli busied herself for a moment with loose tea leaves in her now-boiling water.

During the silence, something arguably halfway clever occurred to Jayne. He *did* want to convince Juli Maren to stay up longer with him, for several reasons, and not at the price of blowing cover for himself or his crew. But - what she really wanted was a bit of entertainment, a story of life in the wild 'verse beyond her own experience. Could Jayne manage to spin a yarn that would incorporate enough of his life experience to be compelling without being personally incrinimating? He actually thought so. He could incorporate stories from his past confederates in dirty dealing and so on.

"I grew up on the mean streets of Eavesdown," he started off. "Mom and dad were a good sort trapped in a bad situation - they did their best to raise us kids up right on the straight and narrow, but it was hard for me to see the point of that, I guess. Dad ran a Cortex nook, and he was always getting leaned on by one gang or another. My brothers did the hard work of getting into one of the gangs, and by the time I was old enough, I was a legacy. It never really occurred to me that I didn't want to get into a life of crime."

"Really, how fascinating," Juli remarked, and so Jayne continued on with his composite tale-telling. He did give a guest-starring role to Badger, since he did know the beetle-eyed Persephone crime boss better than many, and Badger was unlikely to give them up to anybody who was looking for him - he found Mal's crew in all of its diversity much too valuable on this sort of job to get them into trouble with Alliance law on the purpose of it.

Juli finished drinking her tea as she listened, and toasted up some vanilla-iced pastries for both of them, and once Jayne had finished his own story he was able to get her to tell a short one of her own, though possibly it was no more true than his had been - brought up by a lower-middle-class polygamous family in a farming colony in orbit around Osiris, running the planting and harvesting machinery and so on - being pushed to excel in scientific studies by her mother so that she would have a chance to leave home and make a better life for herself, being accepted to graduate school on Londinium, getting the innocence of her sheltered upbringing shattered in her first day on campus, and meeting Rickard at a commencement party when she had finally gotten her master's degree in biological technology.

And then, with a yawn and a smile, she said that she really did need to get back to bed, and headed off. Jayne decided not to protest this time, partly because he had storied himself out, and picked up the video player, keen to get back to the show. Unfortunately, the darn thing was soon complaining that its power source was exhausted - probably because he'd forgotten to switch it off and conserve energy while he and Juli had been talking, just left the thing sitting there on the table, paused in mid-joke. Gorram it!

What was he going to do now?

--------------

"Well, umm, thanks, I guess," Kaylee said to a blonde-haired tall young lady who still didn't even look old enough to be more than an undergraduate. "There was a lot of hard work that went into that one, you know... larger layers building smaller layers, and what have you, but I'm proud of all the good work that it's done."

"Is it true, the story they tell about how you got the idea for the diffusion timing system?" her questioner pressed.

"Well, unusually enough..."

Simon reacted to the safe-word cue almost instantly. He'd been talking with a grizzly forty-something nuclear engineer about the practical tutorials, trying to get a notion of what the procedure might be from someone who said that he'd been through that sort of thing before, but they'd agreed earlier that 'unusual' or any variant of it was to be treated as a distress call, a sort of 'get me the hell out of this conversation' sentiment. He took one look at his wrist chrono and realized how he had to play it.

"Listen, Miss Rye..."

"Reya," the girl insisted stubbornly. "Amana Reya."

"Miss Reya, then - I'm sorry to have to interrupt this love-fest, and I can see that my dear better half is loving the attention," Simon lied smoothly, "but it was a long and difficult trip that we took to get here, and I think it would be good for us both to get our full measure of rest before tomorrow instead of staying up all night. This is where the line is drawn."

"Come on," Amana told Kaylee. "You can't let him talk to you like that! Cross the gorram line."

"Um - maybe another time," Kaylee told her as gracefully as she could manage. "Hopefully we'll meet again." AFTER I get a chance to look up that story you were asking me about on the Cortex, and figure out a clever 'real tale' twist on it, she added to herself silently. "Take me somewhere private, my darling," she breathed over-dramatically to Simon.

"Delighted to, my dear," he played back, and they headed out of the room, each with one arm looped around the other. This time, they actually navigated most of the way back to their room without needing the light-guide. "So, you were holding your own fairly well until the last little bit there," he said softly to her.

"Yes, I suppose so," Kaylee answered distractedly. "Darling, do you think that we did the right thing in making ourselves disappear for so long?"

"Hmm?" Simon was able to guess that Kaylee meant something other than the face value of that question, if only because it was something that didn't really mean anything for her and him, as opposed to Rickard and Juli. Maybe even something that she wouldn't have asked him straight out, if they were private and she could have. But without being sure what the subtext was, he didn't really want to say anything one way or the other.

"We had our reasons, dear," he told her. "Now that we've got to this place, we'll have to see how it goes and make our decision based on that."

"Hmm, yes," she muttered, and stepped ahead to the door, breaking their embrace but still holding his hand. Once again, they entered and sealed the door in silence. "Okay, lab procedures," she said to him, immediately getting down to business. "What's the most important precaution to take versus accidental radiation exposure?"

"Um - keeping my detector worn in the appropriate fashion at all times, checking it regularly?" Simon blurted out, not at all sure if this was the right answer. Kaylee hesitated for a long moment, looking deep into his eyes, and then nodded.

Simon asked one next, about the sort of debate that he'd been through in medical school, that he thought would be relevant to brainstorming sessions. The rapid-fire exchange of questions back and forth became dizzying, hypnotic, and somehow exhilarating. Neither of them got every detail right, by any means, but every failure was quickly covered as a learning point before moving on.

Simon had just managed to correctly answer a poser about something to do with fuel line flows when Kaylee said. "Right. That's five in a row perfectly answered. You deserve something more than just a verbal way to go." And she leaned forward and kissed him on the mouth. Simon was so startled by this that he wasn't able to react in any particular way for a long time. He had been so wrapped up in just asking and answering quiz questions that he hadn't even realized that Kaylee had been so close to him, (which would ordinarily have been pretty high on his list of things to pay attention to.) Without consciously intending to kiss back, Simon's body seemed to react to the situation on autopilot, pressing his lips back against her, wrapping one arm around Kaylee's appealing body until it got to the very small of her back.

And then, the moment finished of its own accord, and they were standing and looking at each other, both breathing heavily. "You... you did that to reward yourself, not me," Simon said, his voice throaty, and yet undercut with a confidence that he didn't feel deep inside. "Admit it."

"Maybe I did, maybe I didn't," she teased back. "Seems pretty obvious that we both enjoyed it, and why not?"

"We - we're in the middle of something very serious here," Simon said, part of him wanting to let go his grip of her, and part wanting to hold on forever. "A - a mission. Even though we play the part of man and wife when we're out that door and in public, we - we *have* to keep more discipline than that, behind closed doors. It's important that we not go too far, here and now."

"Why?" Kaylee's voice was a wistful plea. "Why can't we live through what we're acting out? How would it hurt the mission?"

"Because - because I won't care about a Baty power engine if I'm... if I'm wrapped up in what I could suddenly start feeling for you," Simon choked out.

That stopped Kaylee short. After a second, she stepped definitively back, so hard that Simon couldn't keep his hold on her. Kaylee's eyes stayed fixed on Simon, never wavering, but he couldn't really read what emotional response was behind them, if she was offended again, or touched by what he had said, or resigned, or just plain didn't understand what he meant. And then... "I guess that you're right. And it's late enough that we should turn in for the night. Do you intend to make me flip a half-credit for the big bed?"

"N-no, of course not, I'll take the cot if you don't want to..." That sentence trailed off into a tailspin of its own stupidity. If he had just finished explaining to Kaylee that they couldn't kiss, couldn't hold each other close, because of the danger of passion clouding their edge, or his at least, his drive to finish this mission with a success... then sleeping on the same bed was probably a bad idea, especially a bed like that one. It would be so easy for something to start while they were both half-asleep, and then be tempted to not stop, and... "Yeah, that's the way to go, obviously."

Kaylee smiled a bit sadly. "Okay. I'll... I'll go get changed for bed in the Privacy." She crossed over to where one of her bags was still sitting on the floor, bent down to rummage through it, (which tested Simon's resolve momentarily once again,) and then vanished behind the door of that little room. Simon hesitated, and then took the bag that held his own night-type clothes into the living room. It would be better for him to change in there, just in case Kaylee got finished before he did, and came out without checking for the coast to be clear.

But part of his mind kept insisting that none of this was really for the best, that what he and Kaylee could have together if they just let themselves be open to it was more valuable than any nuclear reactor could ever be. Unfortunately, Simon suspected that this was the part of his mind that he could never really get to shut up, especially when he was trying to sleep.

He only saw Kaylee once more that evening, after they had both changed. She was sitting up in bed, a portable Cortex interface pad on her lap and crawling her way through whatever cyber-streams there were, probably on the local household node. In a simple white undershirt and her hair loose, she looked incredibly adorable. "Listen, I... I just wanted to say, if I hurt your feelings, I didn't... I'd hate to think..."

"No, it's okay," Kaylee assured him. "Weren't my favourite words to hear, but they did and all need to be said." There was a moment's pause. "Good night now?"

"Yeah, see you in the morning." Simon sighed. "Last one to wake up for the shower is a rotten egg."

"Ehh? How's that again?"

"Oh, umm..." Simon shook his head. "It's silly, never mind."

"I love silly things..." Kaylee let that hang in the air. "Well, maybe another time."

"Yeah, alright."

And he closed the door between the bedroom and the living room, hoping that he wasn't closing another metaphorical door tonight as well.

TO BE CONTINUED...

COMMENTS

Tuesday, June 2, 2009 2:50 AM

JANE0904


You know, I'd really hoped that Juli might have made a play for Jayne ... I'd love to see how he handled it, all the more so because she looks like Kaylee. And Simon might have the best of intentions, but he needs to be just a bit more ... sympathetic.

Good work!


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