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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
The engagement party of Mr. Universe: an elegant and tasteful little affair.
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 2855 RATING: 9 SERIES: FIREFLY
The Treasure of Lei Fong Wu
During the Unification War Athens tried to remain neutral, although both the Alliance and the Independents claimed her as their own.
It was among the Inner Rim worlds that had sent delegates to the Independent Worlds Conference on Hera before the war, but after consideration the Archon and her cabinet had voted against signing the Independents Charter and adopting the yellow, black, and green banner, although the Archon sent Ambassadors to the High Council. They had also elected not to become signatories to the Alliance (though they sent Observers to Parliament), and expressed a cautious well-reasoned neutrality.
Despite this officially neutral position, the people of Athens contributed thousands of Browncoats to the Independent military to fight for Freedom, and a fair number also joined the Alliance to fight for Unity. In the end, the Alliance was the first to ignore the Archon’s protests of neutrality, and occupied the planet on the pretext that the Independents were going to try to do so themselves. It was only coincidental, according to the Alliance, that Athens had a strategic importance because of its location – in short order after the occupation it became a major supply depot for the Alliance’s forward operations.
The Independents considered the act an incursion into their territory, but there was little they could do to counter the action. Their few ships were tied up in other theaters. But they were free with issuing letters of marque and reprise, and within six months of the Occupation the ecliptic around Athens, her ringed jovian primary (Aegis) and her seven rocky sisters became a haven for Independence commerce raiders and unaligned pirates. After the war many of these rogue ships dispersed under threat from fresh Alliance cruisers, but there was still plenty of piracy going on, if you weren’t cautious . . . or lucky.
The generous 12,000 mile moon had been terraformed the century before, giving it a vivid, mature ecosphere. While its geography was not conducive to large oceans there were several lakes and shallow seas that broke up the monotony of the ubiquitous rolling hills and broad plains. The three mountain ranges (The Atlas Range, the Hellenes, and the Olympians) were not particularly large, but they took to flora quite nicely, producing beautiful blankets of greenery interrupted occasionally by magnificent outcroppings of breathtakingly pure white marble.
Like the historic city-state she was named after, Athens was a haven of culture and democracy. It enjoyed a mild “Mediterranean” clime, producing some grapes and olives, as well as plenty of sheep and some cows, and aquaculture was pervasive. Its large size meant decades before it “filled up”. It was a popular and expensive world to settle, especially among immigrants from Londinium and Merovingia, and the local company aristocracy prided themselves on furnishing great culturally important events. Acropolis, the capital, had no fewer than twenty theaters, two stadiums, and it seemed that every shack on every street was an art gallery or a cafe. Classical, pseudo-Classical, Neo-Classical, and Classical Revival art and architecture contributed an ancient feel to a city that had been no bigger than Hamlet’s largest town just fifty years before.
Serenity had made brief stop-over at Hamlet, the best refueling point between far-flung Salisbury and Athens. Spending no more time than they had to there, they were quickly back on their way for their rendezvous with Mr. Universe. He had waved them with the address of his new villa, just north of Acropolis just as they left Hamlet’s atmo, and he sent along several tantalizing views of the estate. Just to be an ass, he sent along a menu of the sumptuous feast he had hired a local caterer to provide, complete with video captures of him tasting a morsel from every dish and finding some superlative to relay . . . when he wasn’t sexually harassing the waitresses. Lenore the SexBot stood implacably in the background while Mr. Universe’s greasy hands roamed. She was apparently a very tolerant SexBot.
Just after atmo entry, Inara’s shuttle peeled off – she had hurriedly arranged a client that she had confided to Kaylee was part of her “research” – she would not be joining the festivities.
After Wash touched down on the marble landing platform the estate boasted, the cargo door opened wide to reveal a crowd of beautiful maidens welcoming them with flowers, laurels, song, dance, and big ceramic mugs of wine. All the ladies were dressed in a simple white cotton peplosi, fastened at the shoulder with archaic broaches, and a few spins of the dancers revealed that that was the extent of their wardrobe. Jayne was instantly impressed and waxed crudely poetic at the sight.
General Lei and his men followed the crew in their yellow sash uniforms. Johnny had eschewed one, pointing out that officially he was Yellow Ribbon Tong, not Yellow Sash. Undaunted, Master Lei compromised by making him dress as a scion of the Imperial House, in a yellow silk outfit embroidered in red that Madame Lei had ordered for him. If he had complained about his attire before the hatch opened, he shut the hell up the moment each of his elbows grew a pretty seventeen-year-old girl with no panties.
The villa was magnificent. Built in a heavy-handed Classical style out of brilliant white marble, it resembled an idealized vision of ancient Greece, with more than a dash of Renaissance-era ideas of landscape architecture. Statues of warriors, centaurs, busty Amazons, and slender nymphs studded the elaborate garden. Fountains with little naked boys, boars and fish cavorting in limpid pools provided a soothing white noise in the background. Peacocks strutted through the topiary, doves and songbirds flitted through the air, and two white horses with ridiculous spiral horns grafted to their foreheads grazed on a luscious verdant lawn. Holograms of sweaty, muscular warriors with way too much hair fought endless gladiatorial bouts. Torches lined the walkway from the landing field to the mansion, casting magical dancing light in the false dusk – Aegis was beginning to eclipse the distant yellow sun.
“This guy . . . he’s got some issues,” Mal murmured.
“Oh! This is so cute!” Kaylee beamed. A smiling young girl swept up and put a floral wreath in her hair and gave her a goblet of hearty red wine before bowing subserviently and welcoming her in ancient Greek verse.
“He’s just like this,” Wash explained. “I tried to warn you. He has no social skills whatsoever. If he wasn’t brilliant he’d be a sad, lonely little man in some miserable little office, instead of a sad, lonely little man who marries a robot and steals planets and throws outrageous parties in an attempt to buy friends. But he is brilliant, he got the data, and all we gotta do to get it is get drunk on his dime, toast his rosy future of elaborate masturbation, get viciously insulted the entire time, and get the hell out.”
“That’s your plan?” Zoë asked skeptically. “All this, and you don’t suspect anything?”
“Honey, this isn’t an ‘op’, this is a party. Old school chum, remember? He’s utterly harmless, a real ji bai, hates violence – unless he’s watching it. Then only the good stuff, real authentic mayhem, nothing staged. Steals it off of security webs. Never held a gun in his life – although he did show me that he’s a licensed firearms instructor once. Sure, I hated his guts, but if he wants to buy friends, hell, I’m for sale. And so cheap!”
“Easy, too,” she shot back.
“It’s . . . it’s just humpin’ weird,” Jayne said, wide-eyed. “Man who has a hut like this . . . you gotta wonder about . . .Hey, I mean I like the staff – how’re you doin’, darlin’? Wonder if some of ‘em are whores, or if you gotta work ‘em for sport. But this much crap on your front lawn that ain’t doin’ nothin’ but actin’ purty an’ you’d get the snot stomped outa you where I grew up. Chou ba guai! You just gotta wonder . . .”
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you,” Wash said, slowly and deliberately. “Quit wondering. He does have issues. Deep, disturbing issues. Everything you can imagine isn’t nearly close to the reality of the situation. He stole a humpin’ moon! He sleeps with a gorram machine, for Buddha’s sake, because no living woman would put up with him! But unlike some of our past business acquaintances, I can be reasonably sure we’ll get to dessert without someone pointing a gun at us. I consider it a step up.”
“I ain’t so certain,” Zoe said doubtfully. “I smell trouble.”
“You smell barbecue,” Book said, pointing at an open air firepit over which roasted an ox, attended to by a dedicated team of ox roasters.
“Well, maybe he doesn’t have the charm of Badger, or Niska’s people skills, but I think we can endure this horrible torture for a few hours to get the vital data we need,” he said, annoyed. He sipped some wine.
“And you actually talked to this loser in school?” Johnny asked, when he wasn’t flirting with his escorts.
“C’mon, I feel kinda sorry for him,” Wash admitted. “I mean, anyone who felt physically threatened by me in school – let’s just say I wasn’t the slab of muscle I am today – you gotta have some pity. It evaporates pretty quickly in his presence, but from a distance you can feel sorry for him.”
“This . . . this is . . .” Simon began. “No, no, I can’t do it. There aren’t words for it. Oh, wait – yes there are! Cheesy! That’s what I was looking for. Terminally cheesy. Positively the tackiest thing I have ever seen in my entire life. This spits in the eye of the very meaning of the word ‘taste’.”
River pushed past him to chase a peacock through a hologram of a topless dryad, muttering “Oh, pretty!” with an excited smile and a gleam in her eye. The peacock had the good sense to flee.
“I wanna pet a unicorn – Cap’n, can I pet a unicorn?” Kaylee whined excitedly.
“I have a powerful suspicion you’re ineligible,” Jayne snorted.
“Well, I’m trustin’ Mr. Washburne on this ‘un,” he admitted. “I ain’t met him, nor looked him in the eye. So enjoy yourselves . . . until things get ugly.”
“Mal,” Zoe said, gesturing to the mad circus of mythology around them, “it’s about as ugly as you could ask for.”
“It’s pretty impressive, actually,” laughed Johnny. “I mean, I grew up around really, really, rich people, I’ve seen how they live. I have a sneaking suspicion that if half of them thought they could get away with it in their stuffy little peer groups, they’d live like this.”
“It’s like a rabid fourteen year-old girl’s imagination just vomited all over the place,” Simon pronounced. “River! Get out of the fountain! Please, we’re in public!”
Mr. Universe was waiting with a very still Lenore in the majestic marble foyer of the house, in a black tunic that was almost clean and nearly unwrinkled. He was a short man with curly, greasy hair, wild eyes, and hands that never seemed to stop moving. He grinned broadly and pulled Wash into an uncomfortable embrace.
“Wash! Washy, my friend! I’m so glad you could join me in my hour of celebration!”
“Yeah, Mr. U, not a problem,” he said, a little unnerved at being hugged by his old classmate. “Least we could do.”
“And who are these astonishing visions of loveliness?” he asked, moving right past the men to where Zoe and Kaylee were standing.
“Uh, this is my wife,” Wash said, emphasizing the word a little to make a point. “This is Zoe Washborne. First officer of Serenity.”
“You?” Mr. Universe asked, incredulously. “You? Ended up with . . . him? She isn’t blind is she? ‘Cause she’s got pretty eyes. You said ‘soldier-girl’, naturally I pictures some old battle axe in combat boots, a bunch of ugly scars and a scary disposition.”
“I left my combat boots on the ship,” Zoë remarked evenly. “The rest is fair accurate.”
“A tigress!” he said, delighted. “I like that, I like that a lot, and see how she’s giving me the eye? She wants me – but she can’t have me! Have to settle for Wash. Eventually she’ll sober up and realize what a horrible mistake she’s made. And who is this sweet slab of woman?” he said, turning his attention to Kaylee. His piercing gaze made her uncomfortable instantly – he wasn’t just undressing her with his eyes, he was halfway through with foreplay. She pulled her hair out of her eyes and looked away.
“Kaylee Frye, Chief Engineer,” explained Wash embarrassed.
“My what a lucky ship to have you crawling around and manipulating its most intimate parts, deep inside,” he said with a heavy voice. Kaylee blushed at the compliment, until Mr. Universe nodded appreciatively at her bust. “Bet those babies get in the way when you’re trying to get at those deep, hard to reach spots!”
Wash put a restraining hand on Zoë’s shoulder. “And this is River,” he said. “Kind of our . . . mascot.”
“River . . . River Tam. Oh, yes, the signal has been burning up with your name, my sweet. River Tam, River Tam, wanted fugitive of the Alliance, price on your head substantial enough to rouse every two-bit bounty hunter in the ‘verse. Nice looking thing, too! I bet—”
“I bet you want to stop that sentence before it comes out of your mouth,” River said evenly, giving him what Wash called her “Crazy River Stare”, when she held a gaze unblinking and had her head cocked just a few disturbing degrees to the right. “Remember, I’m wanted. I am unbound by laws and customs. I am desperate and dangerous. You try to make people uncomfortable because that way they have no expectations of you, so they can’t hurt you. You don’t make me uncomfortable. I have power over you. I know your real name, the place you grew up, and the name of the first girl who slapped you for making an unkind advance.”
Mr. Universe looked amused and irritated at the same time. “Don’t interrupt me. Never interrupt me. But you’re a feisty one, aren’t you? Sorry Ms. Teen Angst, no one knows all that – I erased every record in the ‘verse with that data. No place is immune to my power. I ride the signal like other people breathe.”
“Yeah? You didn’t erase it from your brain. Shall I bring up a particularly disturbing incident from your past involving a carrot? How many times you got beat up as a kid? The name of the Rabbi who did your bar mitzvah? ” She blinked, finally. “Or maybe not. Your choice.” River pushed past him to look at a gorgeously carved marble fountain.
“Charming girl,” Mr. Universe said, as the color drained from his face. “They should really raise that bounty.”
“This is Captain Malcolm Reynolds,” Wash continued, trying to stifle a laugh. “He’s our fearless leader. Pretty good shot, too, so I wouldn’t flatter him about his boobs. Might take it wrong.”
“Point taken. Mal? May I call you Mal?”
“For the moment,” Mal conceded. He was fairly protective of the womenfolk under his command, and while he knew Zoe could handle herself in any situation he was sorely annoyed about the impertinent twerp’s harassment of Kaylee. Still, she’d had worse – and he wasn’t going to imperil this potentially valuable resource without a darn good reason.
“Wow! Captain Malcolm Reynolds – I looked you up – truly fierce career, you’ve got. Real rough-and-tumble outlaw stuff – some really choice, shiny violence. I saw the security capture of that bar fight on Persephone two years ago: six Alliance officers in under four minutes – classic!”
“Uh . . . thanks,” Mal said softly. “Congratulations.”
“This is Jayne Cobb,” continued Wash. “Now you want choice violence, this is your man. He can’t get along with anyone.”
“Ah, yes, Mr. Cobb – the man they call Jayne,” he said with a certain amount of relish. “Looked you up, too. Higgin’s moon – the Canton people are quite taken with you. They’re talking about naming a school after you.”
“Pleasure to meet – what?” Jayne asked, confused.
“Elementary school. One of the religious orders built it. Don’t you read your own clippings?”
“I got clippin’s?” he asked, startled.
“Doctor Simon Tam,” Wash continued, pushing Jayne out of the way. “Former brilliant trauma surgeon back in the Central Planets, current wanted fugitive, burgeoning criminal mastermind, superlative ship’s medic, and one hell of a snappy dresser. Don’t let the innocent boyish good looks and classy wardrobe fool you: he’s brutal. Killed a man once for interrupting a pedicure. We’re thinking of calling him ‘Shotgun Tam’.”
Simon shook Mr. Universe’s hand, sparing a few moments to shoot an evil glance at Wash. “A pleasure. Congratulations on your . . . engagement.” He looked around at the magnificent mansion – Simon had grown up on an estate like this – but Osirin sensibilities favored a more subtle architecture.
“Lastly, this is Shepherd Book. Started as a passenger, but he got over it pretty quick. Kind of our spiritual guide and occasional moral compass. Not that we need that sort of thing, being ruthless outlaws and all, but he makes a mean chow fun, too.”
“Pleasure,” Book said, shaking his hand. “And congratulations. She’s . . . quite a . . . woman.”
“Thanks! Ordered her myself!” Mr. Universe smiled. “Had a hard time pulling anything up on you,” he mentioned.
“Well, Shepherds rarely make the news. In my order we usually prefer to avoid the spotlight. I suspect you’d come up with a few paltry entries, if you looked hard enough. Nothing more.”
“And these are our guests,” Wash said, a little uncomfortable with the subject. Everyone on Serenity knew Book had a past that involved some fairly profane activities, but while they openly speculated amongst themselves, they were protective of Book’s privacy. A man in the Black who didn’t want to discuss his past wasn’t unusual. Inquiry past a certain point was liable to get you killed, with some folk.
“May I present Heavenly Master Lei, of the Tao Chiang order, General Lei, former Imperial Warlord and current leader of the Yellow Sash Tong; Lei Chin Yi, late of the Yellow Ribbon Tong, current heir to the non-existent throne of Yuan, and by all accounts the meanest shortstop this side of Boros. And Colonel Nathaniel Campbell, former Imperial Yuanese Intelligence. So I guess the fifteen guys in the stiff shirts behind them are the Imperial Guard, or the Royal Entourage Marching Band, or something like that.”
“Welcome, gentlemen!” Mr. Universe said, a trace of his usual pomposity faded by their presence. He even bowed.
“Our sincerest congratulations on your engagement,” Master Lei said. “Juh jen sh guh kwai luh duh jean jan.”
“I’ve been looking forward to meeting you. I take the understanding that you folks are the reason Washy here needed the sneaky-sneaky into the bowels of Alliance Information Management Systems?”
“Indeed, Mr. Universe,” Master Lei said, speaking on behalf of them all. “I trust the task was not too difficult?”
“God, it gets easier every time I do it. Every time! They think that because they’re the government, with all those spies and coverts and black shuttlecraft that they automatically have the best security. Amateurs. You want hard? Try one of the major congloms, like Sony or Blue Sun. Oy vey! They’ve got the real security – there’s no blacker ice anywhere. No, what you wanted was lan-dan jiang. I was eating a bowl of cereal and watching a fight in a girl’s reformatory while I did it, I was concentrating so hard,” he snorted derisively.
“I am sincerely happy that it was not arduous,” Master Lei bowed again. “And I thank you for making the attempt. I believe you have the data?”
“Here ya go, pops,” Mr. Universe said, tossing the datafile towards the monk. Master Lei’s hand shot out and he took it out of the air without undue fuss.
“Thank you,” he said, handing the file to Colonel Campbell, who then excused himself. “Our business concluded, we would like to offer a few small tokens of our thanks and esteem,” he said graciously. Master Lei may have been a devout monk the last few decades, but it was clear to see that the weight of his robes did not diminish the former prince he still held inside him. He made a subtle motion, and four of the soldiers marched forward and presented their gifts: Five pounds of coffee and a box of cigars from Salisbury, a wide ivory belt buckle with “Mr. Universe” in scrimshawed in Chinese characters on its face, and two kilos of the precious prime teramalhetrite 6, a derivative of Dark Matter that was a key component to any kind of powerful data ansible technology. Mr. Universe whistled when he realized what it was.
“Damn, H.M.,” he said to Master Lei. “That’s . . . that’s a gracious plenty! Tremendous! A chunk like that, I can put together a cortex data shunt that can pierce that mega shiny ion cloud in my sky like piss through a snow bank! Right now I gotta bounce the signal off three different gorram satellites to get through. I build a transmitter with this and put enough juice behind it – and I got plenty o’ juice – well, hell, I could reach every gorram nook and cranny in the whole freakin’ ‘verse! You could never stop that signal!”
“The least we could do,” Master Lei assured with a smile. Colonel Campbell stepped forward to retrieve the file from the old monk, bowed reverently, then left alone to go study the important documents.
“Your men are welcome to the lower courtyard – plenty of young lovelies to go ‘round. I bet I hired nearly every whore on Athens, and some who weren’t but might be contemplating a career move. We’ll be in the upper courtyard, by the pool for the feast. I got three cases o’ champagne, a couple of vats of local wine, plenty o’ liquor. Best caterers on the planet, too. Authentic Aegean cuisine. And Kosher, too!”
“How the hell did you get this place?” Wash asked when everyone had been introduced.
Mr. Universe grinned. “Just a little creative electron sculpting,” he explained. “I used an old Alliance military funding code that overrides just about anything. This place was already on the market, so the ‘Alliance’ rented it for a super-secret conference. The code also keeps local law enforcement away – we won’t be disturbed, and any satellite or scanner that chances to sweep over this place automatically forgets what it just saw. Everyone gets paid without record – blind fund. Nifty, huh?”
“Damn right it is!” Wash admitted. “And, hey, congratulations. I know you and Lenore will be very happy with each other for many years to come. I warn you, though,” he added with a grin, “sometimes people . . . change after marriage.”
“Don’t worry,” dismissed Mr. Universe, “she’s a great girl, she really is. Besides, I bought the extended warranty. Okay, everyone, dinner is in half-an-hour!” he shouted, clapping for attention. “Please follow the lovely attendants and they’ll show you to your dressing rooms and help you get fitted.”
“Fitted?” Kaylee asked, eyes wide with concern.
“Yeah, baby!” the little man cackled. “Why else would you come to Athens to have a good time? An occasion like this calls for something . . . special.”
“Oh . . . no,” Wash murmured as he realized what his friend was about to say.
“Just dinner and drinks wouldn’t do. So I want to welcome you all to Mr. Universe’s First Annual Invitational TOGA PARTY!”
Colonel Campbell had eschewed the festivities for a chance to plumb the depths of the Imperial Archives. He retired to a side room (the villa had no shortage of these) found a comfortable chair, plugged the datafile into his scanner and began to search.
The Archives covered everything from ancient China to the fall of the Emperor. Completely. It was an amazing amount of knowledge, on every conceivable subject. Of course the Imperial Families were all covered extensively, every ruler from the Yellow Emperor to the last Lei on the Amber Phoenix Throne. The entries were clear, concise, and utterly fair, if unflattering at times. That was the province of the Imperial Archivist.
The role of the Archivist in the Empire was ancient. By law and tradition, the Archivist never made public his official history of the present Emperor – just the previous one. That way, it was assumed, the Archivist and his staff would not be subject to political pressure to speak well or ill of an Emperor, giving the Archivist a rare neutral position from which to judge how well the Emperor ordered his kingdom. From the great Ssu-ma Chen forward, Imperial Chinese historians had been utterly faithful to history.
The Archivist for the last Emperor was named Han Jeh Ran, a gentleman of keen intellect with an eye for subtlety. Every political twist and turn, every party and reception, every major event during the Emperor’s reign was detailed. Campbell skipped back a century to the time of Lei Fong Wu and the brutal rule of the Tyrant. Not even Shan Yu, for all of his tyranny, was willing to attempt to influence the Imperial Archivist – to do so would risk losing the Mandate of Heaven – so the account of that period was delivered with the same utter truthfulness that the previous, more peaceful rulers of Yuan had been.
He found it horrid and fascinating reading about the last days of the most despised despot in modern history. He began in the section about the decade-long war with Xiao, the build-up of the Yuanese fleet with massive war-ships and thousands of deadly fighters; he read about the million-man army the Tyrant put together, and how he mercilessly trained them for two years on the cold steppes of Wuhan, in the jungles of T’ien, and within the sprawling urban centers of Yuan. He read of the Great Invasion, which nearly overwhelmed the Xiao Republic in a few short month, and was only stopped by the intervention of the early Alliance. He read about the Tyrant’s slow descent into madness, and the rise of the brilliant administrator Lei Fong Wu to the seat of the Prime Minister.
That’s when it got good. Lei was one of six ministers who had secretly decided that the Tyrant’s reign must end if Yuan was to be saved from eventual destruction. The war fleet he had built for Xiao, it was feared by the other worlds, could easily be turned against them. Londinium, Sihnon, Ariel and Isis – the “Group of Four” – had begun ramping up war production in anticipation of a battle with Yuan, and that was a battle the Yuanese couldn’t hope to win. Yet the Tyrant would not relent, instead imprisoning and executing entire families of dissidents or potential enemies to his regime.
But not Lei. Lei had skills. He had ordered Yuan efficiently, allowing more resources to be brought to bear on the war. He had calmed the dangerous internal situation on Yuan, kept the people from revolting and destroying the Empire. He endured Shan Yu’s capricious whims, stood silently by as he indulged his recreational pursuit of torture, looked on dispassionately as the Tyrant would place families of his enemies in airlocks and slowly bleed the air out, in an effort to see what lengths they would go to to spare their own lives. He looked on with a face of stone and a heart black with disgust and revulsion.
But Shan Yu liked Lei, appreciated his humor and efficiency. Lei was one of his favorites. The Tyrant showered him with gifts, mostly taken from the estates of his victims. He granted him nearly unlimited authority.
Lei was shrewd. He was a consummate tactician, and so he prepared his coup for two years in his own head, taking no concrete action, until the perfect moment presented itself. Then he struck.
He had help. Five other like-minded ministers, several leading Generals, and a cabal of clandestine supporters who sprang into action at his command. The set up had been impeccable. All that was needed was a single traitor, someone willing to betray the Tyrant. As he read, Campbell’s face began smiling. He had spotted the likely character the moment they were mentioned. When he was certain, he closed the scanner and sighed, amused and appreciative of the beauty of the betrayal. Then he got up and wandered out to the pool patio, where the party was going on in earnest.
The wide patio was strewn with chaise lounges and couches. All the guests were in gleaming white togas, except for Book and Master Lei, who begged off for religious reasons, and Wash, who wore a toga made out of a stunningly ugly Hawaiian shirt fabric in blue, green, and yellow. Mr. Universe, it seemed, was familiar with the pilot’s choice in fashion.
Nearly everyone had a glass of wine or champagne in their hands, and young, smiling girls wandered about with trays of food while a quartet played what may well have been authentic ancient Greek music (Campbell recognized the lyre and the pan flute, of course, and thought that the blonde girl held a cithara.). Mr. Universe sat in the lap of his mechanical fiancé, talking with Wash and Zoe. Malcolm and the General spoke as each received a massage. Simon and Kaylee were standing near the fountain, holding hands, while they watched in awe as a bare-chested young man spit fire. Johnny was among a knot of young performers with River where they were learning the supposedly authentic Greek dance. River seemed to have mastered it instantly, while Johnny danced with great grace and enthusiasm but without any dedication to the prescribed steps.
“General,” he said quietly to the big bearded man, who had slid down his borrowed toga so that two adorable young girls could massage his shoulders while a third fed him grapes and pastries. “I have news. I have the name.” To his credit, General Lei did not spring out of his chaise lounge. He merely opened one eye, sighed, and shooed away the girls.
“Gather my kin,” he ordered. “Our host, of course, and Captain Reynolds’s people as well. We shall all see this together,” he said, with a nod towards the Captain.
“It shall be done,” Campbell said with a bow. It took him only a few moments to do so – minus Jayne, who had disappeared. Campbell did not desire to know why, though his imagination provided several speculations, unbidden.
When the crowd had gathered he politely asked Master Lei to activate the Map. In moments the ghostly holo of the ancient Emperor appeared on the patio.
“Ancestor,” Master Lei (who had eagerly donned a toga) said as he bowed. “We have discovered the name you seek.”
“Tell me and I will point you towards the final clue to the treasure,” the image said politely. “The one who betrayed the Tyrant was named . . . Nyan-Nyan.”
“Nyan-Nyan?” Mal asked, surprised. It didn’t sound like the name of a general or politician. “ ‘Kitten’?”
“ ‘Kitten’,” assured Campbell. “There is no mistake.”
The Emperor smiled, bowed, and congratulated his progeny. The sun chose that moment to come out from behind Aegis, dramatically bathing the patio with bright light.
“Excellent. You may proceed to the last and final clue. In order to release the location of the treasure, you must tell me what is written on the bell of the Ta-Shih-Chih Temple. It is a motto – I will tell you that much – and I had it inscribed when I donated the bell. There is no record of that inscription, I assure you. You must go to the temple and see it yourself.”
“We have to go to Yuan?” Chin Yi groaned. “The Feds will be all over there!”
“There is no Ta-Shih-Chih temple on Yuan,” the General said. “Not built during our ancestor’s time, at any rate.”
“Ta-Shih-Chih would be a Buddhist temple,” Book observed.
“Yes, and the people of Yuan are Taoists and Confucist, for the most part,” agreed Master Lei. “There is no temple like that there.”
“Then where the hell is it?” Mal asked.
“Why don’t you ask the map?” Simon suggested.
Master Lei nodded. “Of course. Honored ancestor, where might we find the Ta-Shih-Chih Temple?”
The holo flickered for an instant, then spoke. “I dedicated that temple to a community of refugees from Xiao, as part of our amends for the horrible war,” it explained. “You will find it in the City of the Queen of Night, on Hecate. Ordinarily, that place is restricted to the monks, only. But the abbot will allow you to see it when you mention my name. That, too, I established at dedication. With that inscription, I will give you the location and means to accessing the treasure.”
There was a stunned silence as everyone looked at the holo. Finally, Zoe spoke.
“Well ain’t that jing tsai?”
“Hecate?” asked Simon. “Did he just say . . . Hecate?”
“Hecate? Oh,” Kaylee said, her eyes going wide. “Hecate. Oh, crap!”
“Yeah,” agreed Wash, a note of finality in his voice. “Kwong-juh duh.”
“You realize what this means, don’t you?” asked Johnny, his face as pale as his toga.
“Yep,” Mal said, his shoulders sagging with defeat. “We’re pretty much screwed.”
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Friday, November 18, 2005 5:03 AM
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