Thanks as always to KrisEleven for beta'ing.
Translations: Are in mouseover, and also below.
Ni ta ma de. Tianxia suoyoude ren. Dou gaisi: Everyone under the heavens ought to go die
Jian huo: Cheap floozy
Kuang-zhe de: Crazy
Dong ma?: Understand?
Chapter 7: Simon - Honesty
Osiris, February of 2517
"Move on out! Come on, let us through!"
"There'll be time enough for negotiating when you can prove you have the coin."
"I don't trust her, sir. I wouldn't..."
Simon gripped his drink and tried to shut out the noise. The bar's better-off residents were a mismatched collection of underground merchants, the men in oft-darned suits, the women in knockoffs imitating the latest fashions, all escorted by iron-faced guards who made no attempt to conceal their weapons. The smugglers from which the merchants purchased were even more numerous, and their competition for buyers was producing enough tension to ignite the air. Mingled with both parties were pickpockets ready to take advantage of the guest who looked more prosperous than usual. Despite his deliberately disreputable clothing, Simon was aware he still probably fell into this category.
"I'll take another, and one for my friend here..."
"Ni ta ma de. Tianxia suoyoude ren. Dou gaisi!"
"That ain't nearly enough for what you're askin'-"
In a few months, Simon realized, it would be two years since he'd received River's coded letter. He could barely remember a time before most of life had become a process of going through the motions, all his resources completely focused on the slippery task of rescuing his sister. In the daytime, he took his patients one at a time, unable to see beyond his next meeting with a contact. In the nighttime, he dreamed of his sister, dreams that changed in an instant from River dancing to River screaming.
"Watch where you're going!"
"Well, that'll wrap it up. Looks like maybe we can do business."
"...see if you get a better deal from anyone else..."
Simon knew his family and friends were worried about his mental health. To be frank, they had reason to be, but Simon was willing to hang on to sanity by a thread if it meant he could help the sister he loved. But terror for River was only part of the problem. Simon, like all those around him, had built his entire life around the assumption that his government was basically good, or at least could be relied upon to preserve his safety and the safety of his family. But that belief had begun to erode months ago, when his legal inquiries were met with cold resistance. The doubts had gotten even worse when he met contact after contact who took it for granted that the Alliance would imprison or kill them if given the smallest excuse. They might be criminals, but Simon had come to see them as people trying to survive in a world far harsher than his.
"You jian huo! Stay away from my man!"
"Pass that bottle down, will you?"
Simon looked up to see a heavyset, black-haired man, his face rife with raw pink scars, standing beside his stool. He wore no obvious weapons, but Simon knew that didn't mean he had none. "Yes. That's me." He'd not seen this man before, but he fit the description given him by the mother of his former patient, Deborah, in their most recent wave.
"He's not the easiest person in the world to get along with," she'd said, "but I think he and his partner will be able to help you. Just don't get complacent. They hate that."
"Got a private room to talk in," the scarred man said in a harsh drawl. "Friend's in there now, checkin' for any eavesdroppin' devices as would be a problem."
Simon stood. "I appreciate your coming to meet me. Thank you."
"Time for thanks if ya get what ya want," the scarred man advised, turning towards the door. "Follow me."
They made their way through the crowd, ducking around prostitutes and those serving drinks, passing a corner full of gamblers on their way to the door. The scarred man slapped away a thief trying to get a hand in his pocket, and ducked into the hall. Simon followed quickly.
The dark corridor led to a series of entry ways, some separated from the hall by nothing but old curtains. Simon was grateful when the scarred man led him to a solid wooden door and pushed it open.
In one corner of the room stood another man, thinner and taller than the first. He appeared younger than the scarred man, perhaps in his late thirties, despite his prematurely grey hair. "We're all clear," he announced, his accent crisp and formal. "This is the doctor, I suppose."
"So he says," grunted the scarred man. "'Least, his story checks out."
"Good." The taller man waved at the wobbling table and chairs that graced the room. "Let us sit. And do tell Dr. Tam your pseudonym, so he can stop thinking of you as 'the scarred man.'"
Simon blinked while the scarred man glared at his companion. "Go cheat on your wife, Sumner."
"My wife can beat up your honor student," Sumner told him. He turned to Simon. "As you heard, I am called Sumner."
"My colleague's too educated for his own good," the scarred man grumbled. "I'm Geming."
Simon nodded. "I'm pleased to meet you. Deborah has said good things about you."
"Ain't hardly described us accurately then. All criminals here."
"That is right," Sumner agreed serenely. "You're a traitor, I'm a traitor, that's the way it is. But you want to know about your sister."
"Yes. River." Simon dug his nails into the heels of his hands.
"Got no good news for you on that account," Geming informed him. "Alliance has their claws into her now. Hardly likely to ever let her go."
Simon swallowed. "Then she really is in danger at the Academy." He'd been sure what River said was true, but never before had another person acknowledged it.
"I'll say. Ain't no kid in that place ever come out the way they went in. Supposed to be geniuses, but they're kuang-zhe dewhen they leave. If they leave at all."
Simon stared. "Kuang-zhe de? But why?"
"Because the Alliance consider your sister government property," Sumner said. "They wan to mold her body and mind to suit their needs."
Simon's stomach roiled. "Mold...how?"
"With propaganda, with mind-altering chemicals. Possibly even with surgery; we cannot be sure. To state it bluntly, they are playing with her brain."
Chest and throat burning, Simon stared at Sumner. "But River isn't – she's not a toy! She's –" Gifted? A prodigy? Precious and rare? So his parents had said, and taught their children that intelligence and status conferred privilege. Is this what life is truly like? Simon wondered bitterly. Must people trade their daughters for the privilege of keeping a record free of black marks?
"To them she's a toy," Geming said harshly. "Actually, to them she's a tool. Don't know for what purpose, though."
Simon found his voice. "What do I have to do?"
"What do you mean?" Sumner asked warily.
"To get her out. There must be a way. No facility is impenetrable."
"You got no idea what you're asking," Geming broke in. "No idea. The risk involved –"
"I have money. I'll pay whatever it takes. My parents will help."
"Will they?" Sumner raised an eyebrow. "Hardly anyone would willingly get involved with such a scheme."
"Once I explain, they'll understand." Simon twisted his hands in the fabric of his pants, hoping beyond hope that what he said was true.
"And once she's out, just where're ya going to take her?" Geming inquired. "Trust me, there's no place you can run where they ain't gonna come looking for ya. You'd have to hit the border planets, and odds are someone like yourself wouldn't last a day even there."
"I'll take that chance."
Sumner looked at him seriously. "You could lose everything, Dr. Tam. You've never been off the Core, I'm guessing?" Simon shook his head. "You would have to live like an outlaw. Have you ever visited an Alliance prison? A real one, not the pleasant front they show trustees and tourists." Sumner didn't wait for an answer. "That's if you survive, dong ma? If some bounty hunter doesn't put a bullet through your brain to get to your sister. It only takes one time, one mistake."
"But it could be done."
Geming and Sumner traded looks. "Ain't rightly sure," the former finally replied. "We've not got the fundin', and ya gotta have an insider for this kinda thing, and we-"
"May have one, actually," Sumner said thoughtfully.
"What? Not Swallowtail? I thought we couldn't be sure of her."
"Well, it is a risk, but without her, we can do nothing."
Geming shook his head. "Ain't worth it."
Simon cleared his throat. "It is to me. Is there anything I could do to persuade you to put me in touch with this Swallowtail?"
"You and Swallowtail could not do it alone, Dr. Tam," Sumner said, not unkindly.
Geming observed Simon shrewdly. "Bet that wouldn't stop ya, though, would it? Try and do it on your lonesome if we don't help ya."
Simon raised his chin. "Yes, I would."
"You know," Sumner mused, "if we did manage this, we would have the evidence to prevent others from entering the Academy, to some extent at least. And it would build confidence in our ranks. That's been sorely lacking lately."
"Your ranks?" Simon inquired.
"None of your business," Geming growled repressively. "Unless we agree, which we ain't likely to."
Sumner frowned at Simon. "She may not even be your sister, truly. Who can guess what kind of damage they've done to her mind? She might not know you. She might be a vegetable. Why do you risk so much?"
Gifted. A prodigy. Rare and precious. His parent's words, not his. "Because she's my mei-mei."
The two men were silent for a moment. Then Geming heaved himself to his feet. "Well, we'll talk about it. Get back to ya with our decision."
"There is not much to thank us for, yet," Sumner replied.
"You told me the truth." Simon paused by the door. "It's more than anyone else has done." He left the room.
Geming looked after him. "That's a good man. 'Course, that ain't gonna stop him from becoming a dead one, but still..."
Sumner cocked his head, listening. "Do you hear that?"
"Sirens. It's a raid."
Simon had just entered the main area when he saw a man being knocked to the floor by a sonic rifle. People were pouring for the exits, pushing and shoving and screaming. Someone rammed into Simon and he tripped over a bar stool, crashing to the ground. By the time he scrambled to his feet, he and those nearest to him were surrounded by Feds. The one nearest to him spoke as he removed handcuffs from his belt.
"You are bound by law for the crime of presence in a blackout zone."
A/N: I had fun with the pseudonyms in this chapter. Geming means 'revolution,' and Sumner was the name of an anti-slavery senator during the Civil War.