Mal and his crew are back. Always looking for a payday, Mal accepts a job from an old nemesis and occasional client: Badger. The payoff? More than he or his crew can imagine. But with such an astounding amount of scratch comes an equally astounding helping of danger. Read on!
Truth was, Mal had never been to Londinium his entire life. Neither had Jayne, Kaylee, or Zoe. Deader told the story of how her niece had been invited to some convention there with her school, but had to cancel when war broke out. That was the closest Deader got to it. Only Simon and River had ever visited the seat of the Allied Planets, and then only twice. Their father was an Appointee of the Medical Elect and took his family to Londinium when the annual meetings took place there.
The Alliance assassin who had tried to keep intel about Miranda from being broadcast to the Verse stood in the airlock two feet away and stared back.
Only Inara was familiar with Londinium. Her only advice to everyone as they sat around the galley table was: “You’re all going to stand out like sore thumbs. I hate to say this, and don’t take this the wrong way, but you don’t belong there, none of you.”
“Personally, I take that as a compliment,” said Mal. “I wouldn’t want to be counted among a bunch of sniffs.”
“Damn straight,” said Jayne, who looked like he wanted to eat his words before anyone heard them. Lenore sat next to him; he glanced nervously at her and said, “Excuse me. It just came out of me.”
Lenore gave him an understanding smile and squeezed his hand. She gazed at Mal. “Captain, I have extensive files on Londinium: its history, culture, popular restaurants, social events, and much more. Would you like me to make them available for you and the crew?”
Mal gave her a quick but grateful smile in return, then shook his head. “That won’t be necessary just yet. Thanks anyway.” He glanced at Inara. “If we’ll stand out like sore thumbs, I suppose Serenity …”
“Exactly,” she said. “A ship like Serenity won’t be allowed to land during the day.”
“So the sniffs won’t have to look up and see us.”
She nodded. “Cargo vessels are allowed to land only at night; and that’s no doubt how they’ll classify Serenity.” She gazed at Deader. “I take it you know our destination?”
“That I do,” said Deader shortly. “We’ll be touchin’ down in New Cardiff itself.”
“The capital city?”
“Last time I checked, it was.”
Bellerophon to Londinium was an eleven-day burn. In that time Inara and Deader had gotten to know each other a little, and it was obvious, at least to Mal, that they hadn’t decided if they liked each other or not. Deader was terse with Inara; and Inara was terse in return.
A day from their destination, nothing had changed. Mal pushed the potential problems of two women living on his boat with claws extended at each other from his mind and said, “It beggars belief that Badger knows anyone on Londinium.”
“As much as Capitals like to think they are free of crime, they aren’t. It’s just hidden better,” replied Inara.
“Do we have port coordinates, Captain?” asked Kaylee. Simon sat next to her. He had stayed silent for most of dinner and now this discussion. It was obvious he was nervous about landing there, as was River, who leaned against the wall at the galley’s entrance.
“Smack dab in the center of Snifftown itself. Maybe two miles from Parliament.”
That seemed impossible to everyone, and they all looked at Deader for a response. She shrugged. “I believe the Limey’s intel. I helped him get it. We’ll be all right.” She eyed Mal as one does a bull that might rush her any second. “There’s one more thing.”
Everybody waited. She kept her gaze on him. “Inara isn’t wrong about the sore thumb bit. But it’s worse than that. Much worse.”
“How so?” demanded Mal.
She turned to Inara. “When was the last time you were on Londinium?”
Inara shook her head. “I’m not sure. Maybe ten years ago? I know I wasn’t twenty yet …”
“Well,” prefaced Deader, looking nervously back at Mal, “Londinium officials passed an ‘Acceptability Ordinance’ a few years back that requires everybody who might show their faces to be inoculated.”
“Against what?” demanded Zoe.
“Against unacceptability,” replied Deader.
The crew stared at one another, confused, then back at her. “What, you have to take a shot that makes you somehow acceptable?” snorted Mal.
“That’s exactly what you have to do,” answered Deader. “It’s an injection of nanobots that interact with your various body systems. Others with the injection can tell you’ve had one, and so are acceptable to meet and interact with.”
The crew held quiet in stunned silence for a moment, then erupted with shouts of outrage. Even Lenore looked scandalized (she was trying to fit in, after all), though she held quiet; and Inara, while not yelling, stared down into her lap and shook her head. Mal was shouting the loudest: “There’s no goram way I’m letting the
inside my head with their injections! NO GORAM WAY!”
“May I finish?” Deader said at a normal pitch. She repeated it several more times as the cacophony continued. “May I finish? … May I finish? …”
The crew quietened. She looked at them all, one by one, before coming back to Mal, whose face was plum-red.
“Before you go stampedin’ off again to the Badlands of Bad Kitchen Manners, sir, please sit down and let me finish. Thank you. I was on Londinium not a year ago. I’ve been injected, as you will be injected, but it wasn’t with
Alliance gunk. There are mind-altering
bot-riders in the crap they give you, but not
in the injections you’ll get. We’ll be meeting with Independents and Yuns who
have modified the original solution. No Alliance
mind-alterin’ crap, but with the same bots who’ll make you look acceptable to
the sniffs, as you called them, Captain. The crap they inject their citizens
with also has trace-bots in it, which allows the government to keep tabs on
everyone’s whereabouts. The stuff we’ll get does the opposite: it makes us
invisible to their sensors. You want
to be injected, folks, believe me. Just not with the government crap.”
Inara was still shaking her head. She looked up when she noticed that everyone’s attention had turned to her. “I supported unification,” she sighed. “I was certain an allied Verse was the right way to go. But look what they’re doing. They’re making people sheep. It’s … evil.”
She gazed at River, her eyes begging. They didn’t speak for a long time. Finally River said, “It’s okay. You couldn’t have known.”
Mal, still cooling down, murmured, “I suppose we’ll need the proper drapery to make ourselves presentable, regardless of this injection.”
“Badger has that all covered,” said Deader. “Everyone here—including you, Lenore, my dear—will have clothing appropriate to Londinium furnished to you.”
Jayne grunted. “How can the rodent afford that?”
“Let’s just say that his connections have proven very valuable to the Yuns, and therefore to the Independents as well.”
“That’s twice you’ve mentioned Independents,” said Zoe, who like Mal looked like she was still a couple of degrees from overheating. “You’re telling me there are active Independents on Londinium?”
“That’s what I’m telling you, yes,” replied Deader, taking a sip of coffee. “Right under the
Alliance’s big sniffin’
Zoe glanced at the captain. “All these years, we’ve never met bona fide Independents. Now we’re being told they’re in the capital city, just two miles from Parliament—?”
Mal nodded. “That was exactly what I was about to mention.” He turned to Deader. “Well?”
“How many folks you’ve done business with or stuck a gun in the face of or helped out would know you were an Independent, Captain?” shot back Deader.
Mal held his glare on her, but it couldn’t hold. “Good point.”
“You were never alone,” said Deader. “That’s what the
wanted you to think—that you were alone, the last of a dead movement. You
weren’t. You’re about to meet a fair few who, like you, once thought they were
alone too. The movement is far from dead.”
The crew lapsed into silence. Deader interrupted it with: “We’re six or so hours out yet. I’ve got Serenity goin’ into a large standard orbit.”
“What for?” asked Mal.
“The general procedure for breaking atmo on Londinium is to land and then let government officials give you that injection after they check your passport and luggage and declare your worthiness to be there. We’ll need to be injected with our gunk before they do that. Our injection will destroy the government nano-bots, or use them to enhance our gunk, but it needs half a day to assimilate, else it’ll be worthless. Londinium’s orbit is filled with billions of tons of space junk, most of it ancient—the abandoned spaceboats that ferried the human race from Earth-That-Was. You all know this …”
She glanced around at the crew; they all nodded as if it was common knowledge, which it was.
“You also know that museums have been made of some of it …”
They nodded again.
“We’re going to dock at one of those museums. Government oversight isn’t as oppressive aboard them as it is on the surface. That’s our doing and our nano-bots. There are several agents waiting for us there with our injections and the initial port itinerary.”
She glanced at Mal. “With your permission, Captain, of course.”
He had been staring down at the table. He nodded without looking up.
“I would like to test some of that ‘gunk,’ as you called it, before we put it into our bodies,” said Simon.
“An excellent idea,” said Mal, gazing up at him.
“I may be able to alter it further, if what you say about it is true. Medical nano-bots are extraordinary bits of technology. I may be able to tweak them.”
There was a time that Mal could scarcely tolerate Simon or his sister. River was still a royal pain in the keister at times; but Simon … the ship’s doctor had proven not just to be an invaluable member of the crew, but also someone Mal found he could place his trust in to do what was right for everyone involved. He found himself admiring Simon more and more; as a result, their friendship, years in the making and always very gradual, had finally begun to take root and grow.
“Besides,” Simon continued, “I’m leery of injecting River with anything that …”
He didn’t have to go on. Everyone save Deader was staring at him and nodding emphatically, even River.
The museum they approached was a slowboat named
Almost a full mile in length and a third of a mile in diameter, it looked like
a giant space sausage, or … Sri Lanka
Zoe snickered. So did River. Kaylee blushed. “I guess it could be seen as symbolic,” she commented.
When all she received were stares, she shrugged. “Well, you know, spreadin’ life n’ all …” She shrugged again, then looked away, ostensibly to get the attention off her.
“We’re going encrypted,” announced Deader. She punched a few buttons. “
, zero-three-nine enable …” Sri Lanka
“Enable,” came back a cold computer voice.
“Damn strange that voice is … so old,” said Deader, who appeared to have stopped herself from saying something else. “Gives me the chills knowin’ it’s a voice that was birthed on Earth-That-Was …”
Zoe nodded. Kayle and River looked spooked.
“What’s the latest?” said Mal, who came up behind her.
“We’ve just made contact with the Independents,” replied Deader. “I’m just waitin’ for dockin’ instructions.”
“That’s one massive piece of hardware,” said Mal, staring out at the tremendous ship filling more and more of the view outside.
Kaylee and River glanced at each other and started giggling. Zoe, grinning, shook her head.
“What’s so funny?” he demanded.
“Don’t mind them,” said Deader. “Their minds are bent a little towards the prurient, methinks.”
“Seriously, Cap’n … I mean, look at it!” giggled Kaylee.
Mal was about to respond when the comm sounded out.
“Serenity delta-one-niner, approach zero point three six; seven by eight, encrypt override; lock forty-four. See you in eighteen minutes.”
Deader, wagon plugged into a pilot-side port, fed the data into the program. It beeped.
“We’re good,” she said. “They check out.” She glanced up at Mal. “The Independents will want to check out this ship, Captain, for any
nano-tech that might be onboard.”
“There’s none,” said Mal flatly.
Deader shook her head. “You don’t know that. Every time you dock—it don’t matter where—you expose Serenity to Alliance-created nano-tech. Most of it is junk, harmless, outdated. But some of it is dormant and will activate in the right conditions, say, breaking atmo on Londinium.”
“What does it do?” asked Kaylee, alarmed. She’d beaten Mal to the question; he glanced at her before gazing back at Deader.
“It’s like any infection,” answered Deader. “Eventually it’ll overwhelm the host. Most of it is designed to alter the minds of the crew over time. Some of it takes over comm and navigation systems, rewriting programming to
Alliance standards. All of it is designed to
inform the Alliance
of potential illegal or subversive activity.”
“Like gettin’ the clap,” commented Zoe.
Given the shape of the great vessel filling more and more of the front viewports, and given the blue world they were falling into orbit of, no one found her observation anywhere close to humorous.
Serenity bumped gently against airlock forty-four eighteen minutes later, and once again Mal found himself suppressing vocal admiration of Deader’s piloting skills. The lock sealed with a distant hiss; he looked at her and said, “Let’s go meet these Independents.”
The crew made their way to the hatch and waited. The lock on the other side pressurized, and then three solid knocks sounded out against Serenity’s hull. Mal pulled the door open and stared, then stepped hastily backward and pulled out his pistol. Inara screamed.