BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

BRAINSPECIALIST

Deus Ex Machina - Prologue
Sunday, June 11, 2006

When all Hell breaks loose upon a battleship, our plucky BDHs try to pick the bones.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 1384    RATING: 10    SERIES: FIREFLY

A/N: Dear plucky readers,

Some months ago, I began posting a series called Traveller's Tales. Alas, most of it was badly written, with major plotholes turning up at every corner. So one day I decided enough was enough, and rewrote it. Here is the outcome. Enjoy!

P.S. Leave feedback!

Read part one here!

-----

Jack woke up groggily. His weight shifted uncomfortably in the bed as he attempted to disentangle himself from the covers. After several attempts resulting in varying levels of failure, Jack managed to remove himself from the bed. Glancing over to his beautiful, down-to-earth, and at times just plain homicidal wife, Belle, he slipped on, no put intended, his slippers and managed to slide into his dressing gown. He silently made his way towards the door, placing his hand on the panel in the centre before turning it anticlockwise 90 degrees. The door opened with barely a hiss as the stealthy mechanics slid the door apart into either side of the doorway, and as Jack walked through it closed with another little hiss behind him. Jack yawned, and watched the artificial windows display images of an Earth-That-Was city known as San Angles. He’d actually visited what remained of the once-great city, and the monitors that provided a 3D image of the city did a remarkable job in doing so. Although, Jack pondered, it had probably slipped their mind to include the layers of volcanic ash and debris that now made up the city. He gave a contented sigh, and started to walk down the stairs in the centre of the room with a spring in his step.

Yes, he thought, today was going to be a good day.

***

The I.S.V. Icarus travelled across the system, making a bee-line for the star which all planets in the system orbited around. The Captain, known as Lucas Wagner, rubbed his throbbing temple.

Today was not a good day.

The massive energy shields that would keep the star that had proved handy as an eternal dumping ground for any and all waste the ships within system range created were down for repair. Without them, their task was impossible, as long before they became within range, the ship would have disintegrated, killing everyone and, quite thankfully now he came to think about it, everything. Attempting to ignore the throbbing pain pulsing through his head, Lucas attempted to commence a ship analysis.

‘Commence ship analysis.’ He said simply. He didn’t need to say much more, the undeniably complex computer systems in the room understood. He tapped a few buttons, and several beings manifested themselves before him. Anyone else in the universe would have wet themselves at this. Thankfully, Lucas knew full well what they were. They were AIs, built to be more intelligent and competent than a human crew, and except in a few special circumstances, expendable. This was one of those special circumstances. Unfortunately, they knew this as well as he did, which did nothing to resolve the massive headache that was silently attempting to turn his cerebrum into nothing more that gooey grey pulp.

‘All shipboard weapons are online. All shipboard defences, with the notable absence of the Jacob’s law Oscillating Shield System, are also online.’ That was Orcus, a military AI who’d sold out the armies of Imperial Mars to the fleet of Earth-That-Was, ATLAS, during the colonial wars in the 23rd Century. He wore full military regalia, and carried many medals pinned to his lapel - which, rumour had it - he had actually made up himself. Thoroughly brown-nosed and stuck up, he acted the military superior in every part, which explained largely why he was largely disliked. However, the real cause of it lay with the fact that even among ATLAS personnel, whom Orcus had helped to no end, he was regarded with a wary eye, as no military officer worth their salt, AI or not, could stand a traitor. On the other hand, he was a dab hand with strategic manoeuvres and was actually an ambassador of the Supreme Council that made up their esteemed leaders who had been sent to help deal with their cargo.

‘I see.’ Lucas replied. He turned to the woman, or female persona, who stood beside him. Upon eye contact, she began to speak.

‘All navigational systems are online. We should reach our destination within the hour, and be back home in time for tea.’ She chirped brightly.

‘Let’s hold on to that thought.’ Lucas said, a smile playing his lips. This particular AI, and in fact one of the only artificial intelligences to take on a female persona, was known as Josephine, and was dressed as a young nurse from the second of the three World Changing Wars that happened inside the 20th and 21st Centuries back on Earth-That-Was. Josephine was in fact one of Lucas’s closest friends and allies. In fact, he could have sworn that Josephine regularly flirted with him. As he watched the AI, the evidence for the allegation piled up as she blushed and fluttered her eyelashes at him. Orcus watched on in disgust. Aside from probably having a crush on Lucas, Josephine also acted as his chief navigation officer. She could trace him the quickest path through deep space, avoid enemy radar, and - this was what Lucas liked most about her - when told him something, she was always honest.

Tearing himself away from the endearing AI, Lucas turned to the third of the four AIs standing before him. Oddly enough, even though the situation warranted it, the AI seemed not be paying any attention to Lucas, and instead spent the awkward silence studying the architecture of the room, making light musings here and there. After a few more seconds of being ignored, which were in fact a few more than Lucas would have liked, he decided to take action.

‘Johnson!’ He shouted at the AI. The AI designated as Johnson turned bewilderedly towards the Captain, seeming to have forgotten he was there.

‘Yes?’ He asked politely. Lucas gave him the evil eye until he realised why he’d been called in the first place. ‘Oh, yes. All cyborgs, robots, drones and other AI dominated organisms are operational, with no more than a 0.0003% margin for error in the matrix encoding, which is even now being ratified.’ He spoke with in a distracted manner, and even as the words left his lips he was attempting once more to examine the intricate workings of the room.

Ah, yes, Lucas thought, Johnson.

Johnson was a bit of an inside joke. For centuries, on every ship, there was at least one man known as Johnson. It had come to the point where there had been a Johnson Club, a group which was made up entirely of people who’s first, middle, or last name was Johnson, or if they were an honorary Johnson, having performed some great feat in the name of Johnsons everywhere. Lucas himself was an honorary Johnson, having saved the life of the club president, Archibald Johnson. To cut a long story short, one day someone had looked up the crew manifest for the I.S.V. Icarus and discovered to their horror that there was not a single human crew member named Johnson. Of course, there had been uproar, but there wasn’t a position on the ship that could be filled by a Johnson. However, the position of Robotics Officer was open, yet there was not a Johnson among them who was qualified enough to fill it.

So they’d created one.

The name Johnson was one of average men everywhere. It was the average man’s average name, so the AI Johnson was no different. Average height, mass, looks, apparel, everything about the AI was average. Including, unfortunately, an average attention span. Fortunately, he was at least an above average Robotics Officer, if a bit straightforward.

Sighing, Lucas turned to the forth of the AIs, Lotus. Lotus was a legend among ATLAS. Said to have been created by the very creator of the nanotechnology that allowed AIs to exist, the American-Korean professor Warwick Kai, Lotus was said to have existed since the late 1990’s. He could fill almost any shipboard position, and was one of the most efficient AIs ever to exist. He was also reasonable on the eye, appearing as a reasonably handsome Korean wearing a business suit, looking just like his creator, and spoke with a yuppie accent, which his creator most certainly did not have. No one knew why he spoke like that, and no one had ever bothered to ask him, leaving it to the deadly ways of myth and rumour. On the downside, he was as basic as they came. He possessed next to no imagination, and was entirely single-minded. You gave him a job, and he did it, albeit with ruthless efficiency. You’d be hard pressed to find someone better at doing their job than Lotus, whatever that job may be. It had been noted, however, that Lotus’s code had been slowly shifting over the few months. It would appear that he was rewriting himself, and even now, with his exterior on display, little flashes, barely traceable by the human eye, ran along his surface.

The thing that got most people on his case was his smile. The never-waning, keen-as-mustard smile indicated that its wearer would do anything to appease his masters. It was worrying, and in the worst of times, quite depressing, as some people would try anything to rid him of his never-ending smile. It never became a grin, or a smirk, it was always a smile. Some likened it to the smile of a child wanting to make his parents proud, and some likened it to the smile of a shark right before it gobbled you up. The one thing everyone was sure of, however, was that it was just one of the many things that were perplexing about him. One of the others was that he never spoke without asked to speak. Although not so much on the perplexing side, it was more than a little annoying.

‘Lotus, I need a full ship diagnostic.’ Today, the venerable AI fulfilled the task of Ship Maintenance Officer, to make sure the ship was working at full capacity, and if it wasn’t, to make it so. Lotus nodded, and brought up and old 24th Century holobinder. He flicked it once, and holographic covers fell apart on each side. Lotus flicked through the pages, stopping once he reached his desired point. He read aloud as code pulsed along the surface of the page, translatable by only a handful of AIs, including Lotus himself.

‘Full ship diagnostic is as follows: 99.777% functionality of shipboard weapons. The 0.223% refers to the ailing targeting mechanism of the automated railgun registered as 102832-K98H. Defence at 45.12908312103% and rising. Main loss of defence caused by lack of the Jacob’s law Oscillating Shield System. Engine functionality at 97.140984%, including the default engines, the SuperSpace engines, and the MegaSpace engine. 2.859016% failure originating in the shipboard thrusters on the port side. Structural integrity holding at 93%.’ Lotus turned a page in his holobinder, and entirely new code began to pulse along the ‘page’. ‘Full system diagnostic shows multiple matrix encoding failures-’

‘Which are even now being ratified.’ Johnson butted in. Lotus continued unabated.

‘Which are even now being ratified, yes.’ Lotus closed the binder and gave Lucas his trademark smile. ‘In total, the ship and its systems read at 87.81218947% of full working capacity. Would you like a briefing on how this could be rectified?’ Lucas shook his head, unwilling to go through with another no-holds-barred lecture on ship maintenance.

‘No thank you, Lotus. Just send the requisite instructions to the repair substations.’ Lotus gave him a curt nod and disappeared, followed shortly by the rest of the AIs. Lucas waited a few seconds before placing his hand palm down on the drinks table attached to his chair. It scanned his hand, registered him as the captain, and revealed a set of buttons unknown to anyone else onboard, bar one. He pressed what would appear to be a few random buttons, and the room dimmed into darkness. Apart from to what he wanted, Lucas was completely shut off from the rest of the ship. Seconds later, a fifth AI appeared before him.

Like Orcus, he wore full military regalia, including medals. The difference was that the medals on this particular AI were real. Having served in more than five thousand battles against enemy troops, and a veteran of over thirty-five campaigns, the AI known as Archangel was as old as they came. Unlike Lotus, Archangel was built for war, having been created by the Pan-Northern Alliance for the third of the World Changing Wars. According to records, he’d been around since the 2050’s, the dawn of AI. A member of the Supreme Council, Archangel was stern and businesslike. He rarely bothered with small talk, but when appreciation was due, he gave it in spades. Had it not been for their rather special cargo, he would not have bothered involving himself with a battleship such as the I.S.V. Icarus.

‘Good afternoon, Captain.’ Archangel said. Lucas stood from his chair and gave Archangel a full salute. Nodding politely, Archangel motioned for the Captain to sit down. ‘At ease, Captain.’ Lucas placed himself once more in the Captain’s chair, a comfortable old Winchester that he’d had modified. Archangel gave a tired sigh and sat down on another seat. Although he didn’t exist in any physical plane, over four hundred years of humanity had taken its toll on the AI, and he did prefer to sit during conversation than stand. Some said that his programming was failing and he was becoming increasingly tired, while others claimed he just liked the look of someone sat down. In any case, Archangel did like to sit down. In fact, rumour had it that in the Supreme Council Chamber, he’d introduced seats for the Council members, even though most of them were AIs.

‘I’ll get straight to the point.’ Lucas began, bypassing all small talk. Archangel was rarely one for it, so it was better not to even try. ‘According to Josephine, we’ll reach our destination within the hour. I need to know the cargo is ready to be deployed.’ With anyone else onboard, Lucas would have said dumped. ‘Once deployed, we need to make our way out of the system and back to the Jupiter Complex. What I need to know is will the Cradle last that long?’

The Cradle was a great piece of equipment. A sphere that encompassed almost an entire third of the ship, it was at least three hundred metres in diameter. Although it’s primary purpose was to act as a Stamp Cannon, a weapon that could bypass all shields and turn an enemy ship into nothing more than space junk, although it doubled as one of the strongest containers known to man or his creations. Titanium plating ten metres thick made up the sphere, with three quantum generators powering the infernal device. Right now, they were relying on the strength of the damn thing to hold the cargo.

‘According to our latest reports, the Cradle had taken a significant amount of damage during our last battle. Its occupant didn’t exactly help keep the damage at a minimum level.’ Lucas wanted to get to the point.

‘But will it hold?’ He asked. Archangel paused as he ran over a few calculations in his matrix before answering.

‘Yes, I believe it will.’ Lucas let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding in. ‘You’ve done well, Lucas.’ He looked up in surprise. He had been expecting a lecture on how to keep the Cradle in pristine condition, and how not to have some lowlife creature from the dark abyss that was Hell turn it into scrap, not praise. ‘I know you think you did badly. You lost a good number of fine men in the last encounter with the Spectre fleet, and you took a chance in laying a trap for them here. The risk paid off, however, and I will personally oversee your promotion.’ Lucas was speechless. This was more than anything he could have ever hoped for.

‘Tha- Thank you.’ He stuttered. ‘Sir.’ He added after some thought. Archangel nodded, and with a passing glance at the large 360 degree monitor that let the little room double as an observation deck, Archangel disappeared. The lights flickered back on, and Lucas gave a sigh of relief, followed shortly by the throbbing inside his cranium. Finally, more time for he and his headache to get acquainted. Unfortunately, before he could tell the headache that they had to start seeing other people, Josephine appeared once more. Lucas turned to the young woman with intents driven by annoyance and a headache that registered 9.7 on the Richter scale, he realised he couldn’t really be annoyed with the diminutive AI, as the soft spot he held for her began to rebel.

‘Sir?’ She asked timidly. Josephine could see that he was annoyed and kept her distance, but Jack waved her forward, trying in vain to still the pain inside his head.

‘Yes, Josephine?’ The AI gathered herself before speaking. Lucas recognised the AI’s tick. She always did it right before she told him something he wouldn’t like.

***

Jack sat in the canteen, in full breakfast dress: Pyjamas, dressing gown and slippers. He sipped his coffee quietly, purring like a cat as the warm liquid ran past his lips and down his throat.

‘Very Arthur Dent.’ Jack looked up to see who had spoken, and saw Dominic, the ‘Entertainment Officer’ sit down opposite him. Dominic was an AI, like most of the remaining crew. He spoke with a lower-middle-class accent and always, regardless of time, day, or even season, wore a t-shirt that declared to the heavens in bold red letters on white ‘1966 lives on!’ His position was a matter of inquiry among the crew, as no one really knew what he was supposed to do. He was mainly just, well, there. He played the games, watched the movies, and in general entertained the crew. In the deepest depths of space, being entertained was akin to staying healthy in its importance. Cold, hard numbers had proven that a lack of entertainment drove people insane, and insanity had no place on an ATLAS battleship.

‘What’s up with Douglas today?’ Jack asked. Dominic had a fixation with the Earth-That-Was author Douglas Adams. In fact, in the arcade where the crew mainly chose to relax, Dominic had convinced some of the guys to inscribe a quote on the wall: “In the beginning, the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry, and has been widely regarded as a bad move.”

‘We’ve got Hitchhiker’s for tonight’s movie.’ Dominic informed him.

‘Oh, really? Which one?’ Jack himself was a fan of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.’ Dominic replied with satisfaction.

‘Good thing, that. Mind you, I prefer Life, the Universe, and Everything.’ Before Dominic could go on about Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker’s, or, in some strange cases, Martin Freeman, the voice of the Captain rang over the intercom.

‘This is your Captain speaking. There appears to be some solar flare activity sparking up, and without the JOSS, they’ll mess with the ship systems. I’m preparing a complete shutdown to prevent this. Meanwhile, will all hands not involved with keeping this ship and its crew in one piece please hang on to something and prepare for rough riding.’

‘Catch you later.’ Dominic said.

‘Ditto.’ With that, Dominic dematerialised. Jack drank some more of his coffee, allowing himself to spend a little more time enjoying it as it passed through his system, before jumping up and running to his cabin.

***

Jack took the stairs two at a time, running over to his door and nearly breaking his wrist in an effort to open it. Belle appeared in the doorway, looking very tired and dazed.

‘Whazzz…whaz ‘appenin’….’ She mumbled incoherently.

‘You heard the skipper?’ Belle nodded and yawned, stretching her arms as far as they would go.’

‘Yeah. Loud. Need coffee.’ Ignoring his wife’s animal-like need for caffeine, Jack placed his hands on her shoulders to get her full attention.

‘No coffee now. You need to get strapped in.’ He gestured towards the straps attached to the wall outside their room.

‘Coffee later?’ She asked blearily.

‘Yes, dear. Coffee later. Now, you get your pretty self strapped in, I’m gonna go see to Alice.’ Jack walked out with Belle in tow, making sure she was strapped in before dealing with his pilot who slept next door.

‘T-minus fifty seconds until solar flare.’ Josephine’s voice rang out across the intercom. Jack hammered furiously on Alice’s door.

‘Alice! Get your ass out here!’ Jack waited a few seconds for a reply, before kicking himself as he remembered that the cabins were soundproof. Without hesitation he opened the door with every intent of making sure his pilot was safe. Upon seeing her, the words died in his mouth. You see, he was rather surprised about the young man pumping up and down on her. Alice looked over in horror as Jack stood aghast in the doorway.

‘Jack!’ She shouted in dismay. ‘What the Hell are you doing?!’

‘I could ask you the same thing!’ He shouted back. ‘Didn’t you hear the Captain?!’ We’ve got solar flare activity in-’ He looked as his watch, and visibly paled. ‘Thirty seconds!’

Solar flare activity?!’ Alice’s voice rose to a shrill pitch that more than slightly hurt Jack’s ears.

‘Yes!’ Jack shouted, giving Alice a run for her money. ‘Now get strapped in.’ Alice gestured at her naked form. ‘Oh, right.’ He backed out of the room, closing the door behind him. It took another ten seconds for Alice and her boyfriend to come out. Jack looked down at his watch.

Seventeen seconds.

He helped strap Alice in, ignoring how her erect nipples showed through her nightgown. Thankfully, whoever Alice was with had strapped himself in. After checking they were both secure, Jack ran over to Belle and strapped himself in. Belle was staring at the massive erection on the young man. Jack gave her an angry look.

‘Honey? Do you mind?’ He asked politely.

‘What?’ She replied, in a way that suggested she hadn’t entirely regained consciousness. Jack just rolled his eyes and waited.

***

The bridge was filled with flashing red lights and loud klaxons. The Captain had strapped himself into his Winchester, and watched as his AIs began to appear on his monitors, indicating their safety from the solar flare. A timer was counting down on a central screen, and it appeared to be nearing zero.

‘This is it, people!’ Lucas shouted into his microphone. ‘Impact in t-minus 3...2...1!’ Right before the counter hit zero, he noticed something peculiar. Lotus hadn’t reported in.

***

Deep in the bowels of engineering, Lotus rewrote the 500 year old code that made up his matrix. He pondered the task he had been set. Keep the ship running. What an odd statement. Of course, that could lead to anything. It could mean just to keep the ship in working order. Keep the ship full operation. Keep the ship in pristine condition. In that case, it would require a significant rewrite of his primary systems, including his morality subsection. Deeply embedded, it would require a thorough reboot and catastrophic damage to cause it to fail. In pondering problems and solutions, Lotus used all his computing power.

That might have been the reason he failed to heed the warning about the solar flare activity.

***

A star is a powerful thing. Big, powerful, barely stable and unpredictable. Take a solar flare for example. On planets with the right atmosphere, a solar flare can cause a lightning storm. Solar flares give out an enormous amount of energy, and only very recent technology has allowed civilisations to even slightly predict them. Such was the technology on the I.S.V. Icarus. You see, the major problem concerning solar flares and space travel was that, unless you had a Jacob’s law Oscillating Shield System (Or to those in the know, a JOSS), the radiation it gave out would play hob with your systems. This was, in every sense of the word, bad. Very, very bad.

***

The ship shook from bow to stern as the solar flare’s energy hit the I.S.V. Icarus like a sledgehammer. Systems crashed, gyroscopes spun out of control, gravity and life support failed on multiple levels. Jack hung on for dear life. Eventually the shaking subsided and the ship began to settle once more. Jack turned to his pilot, attempting to find out about the nice young man he’d found boinking her, but she was saved an interrogation by more warning klaxons.

Oh, God, Jack thought. What now?

***

Lotus literally shook as the energy from the solar flare basically ran him through. He tried to gather himself, but he felt fragmented, like a smashed vase. His only choice was to reboot, so he settled into a restful state as his systems tried to gather what was left of him.

***

Lucas watched the screens with mounting irritation as he tried to fathom what his AIs were trying to tell him.

‘What exactly are you saying?’ He asked the primary speaker of the group, Archangel.

‘Captain, the energy from the solar flare brutally damaged some of our systems, including most of engineering, medical, and…’ For an AI, Archangel managed to pale as well as any human. ‘The Cradle.’

‘The Cradle.’ Lucas’s voice was deadpan, the sheer terror at what this meant driving all tone from his voice.

‘Yes, Captain.’ Archangel replied. ‘It’s trying to break free.’

***

An inhuman roar echoed from within the Cradle as its guards backed slowly away from the doors leading inside the massive sphere. There was a thump, like some massive creature slamming against the door. The door began, slowly but surely, to cave in.

***

‘What do you suggest we do?’ Lucas asked Archangel. There was a silence as the war veteran pondered the question.

‘After much consideration, I advise that you detonate the Cradle.’ He said. Orcus shouted in uproar.

‘Are you completely insane?!’ The AI asked. ‘That will kill us all!’ Archangel turned to Orcus, a look of fierce anger, rage, and above all, fear, plastered across his face.

‘What would you suggest, hmm?!’ Archangel asked. Orcus backed away under his fiery glare. ‘That we let that…that…abomination loose among the worlds?!’ Even Lucas was scared by this display of fury, but withheld his opinion for fear of Archangel rounding on him. Eventually, Archangel managed to calm down as his systems cooled down. ‘It’s what must be done.’

‘Agreed.’ Lucas said. He flipped a few buttons on his seat and a keyboard popped out. He typed away at it, watching the central monitor. Finally, it showed three lights, each representing an officer whose approval was needed to continue. One was already lit. Lucas turned to Josephine, who gave him a timid smile. Her surface pulsed as she ran commands through her system, and a second light flashed on. Lucas finally turned to Orcus. Reluctantly, Orcus ran a few commands through his own system, and the third light turned on. Suddenly, the lights in the room turned red, and a loud alarm swept through the ship.

***

‘This is your Captain speaking. The Cradle is breaking up, so we’re going to have to detonate it to stop the last of the spectres from escaping. All hands must now immediately abandon ship. I repeat, this is your Captain speaking-’ Lotus cut off the intercom. He was concentrating on his own problems, he didn’t need the Captain going on at him. Lotus focused as the results came in.

***ERROR***

Error 192-442KJL

System failure.

Total system integrity: 56% and falling.

Lotus examined this new information, and suddenly remembered what his primary command was. To keep the ship running at all costs. At any cost.

***

Lucas’s brow furrowed as he watched the screen before him. According to the report, the generator detonation had been overridden by a source in engineering. Puzzled, he decided to call up Lotus to see what the ships systems had to say about it. Seconds later, the businessman-like AI materialised into the bridge, giving the Captain his trademark smile.

‘Lotus,’ Lucas asked, ‘according to this data,’ at this he indicated the monitor displaying the report, ‘someone overrode the detonation code from engineering.’ Lotus opened his holobinder, searching for the relevant data.

‘Ah, yes.’ He said upon finding the right luminescent page. ‘My apologies. I overrode the detonation code.’

What?!’ The Captain shouted in fury.

‘The detonation of the Cradle’s quantum generators would have caused irreparable damage to this vessel’s structural integrity. In accordance with the commands laid down by you, Captain of this vessel, I stopped the detonation in order to keep the ship in working order.’ Lotus spoke with complete patience, in a manner similar to an adult talking to a small child. Ignoring the AI, Lucas began tapping at his keyboard furiously, before the monitors went dead. ‘Again,’ Lotus said, ‘my sincerest apologies, but I cannot allow you to threaten the structural integrity of this vessel. Please do not attempt to try again; otherwise I will have no alternative but to remove you.’ Again ignoring the AI’s threats, Lucas began to tap away at the buttons that would cut off Lotus. His brow furrowed as the AI monitored Lucas’s actions. ‘I must ask that you halt your present-’ The AI dematerialised mid-sentence. He proceeded to open a direct channel to Orcus.

‘Orcus!’ He shouted, hoping that Lotus hadn’t done anything to his military officer.

‘Sir?’ Orcus’s buzzed over the channel.

‘Lotus has gone rampant!’ Lucas shouted. ‘Remove him, and attempt to detonate the quantum generators manually!’

‘Affirmative. Proceeding now. Orcus out.’ Lucas sighed in relief, collapsing back into his chair, before realising he had to run for his life.

***

Jack ran like a man possessed, plasma-enhanced Manchester quadruple shotgun resting on his shoulder, ammo slung over the other. Belle followed shortly behind him, carrying her signature Blinding Light carbine. Alice stuck close, a Nightingale semi-automatic handgun stuck in its holster, while fiddling with her pilot’s helmet. Trailing behind them was the lad who had been having a rather intimate time with Alice barely five minutes ago. The image would have been a rather dramatic one, if not for the fact that all of them were dressed in night attire. Alice had shrugged on some pyjamas for the sake of decency, while her bunk-mate had dressed in some long coat he must have been wearing before doing the deed.

Suddenly, a squad of soldier ran past them in the direction of the ship’s centre. Jack stopped just in time to avoid running into them, but Belle ran straight into him. Jack kept watching the soldiers until they disappeared from sight. Belle followed his line of sight as a large jeep followed the soldiers.

‘Where do you suppose they’re going?’ Jack asked.

‘Dunno.’ Belle replied. ‘Quite frankly, don’t care.’ She stood still for a second, memorising the directions. ‘The hangar’s this way.’ She said, pointing to another corridor before running down it.

***

The Captain ran as fast as his legs could carry him, making his way to the emergency ship docked close to the bridge. Fitted with the smallest MegaSpace engine known to man, it was powerful enough for a one-way journey out of the system and back to ATLAS-controlled space in just a matter of minutes. The ship itself was of reasonable size, but due to the sheer power needed to drive the MegaSpace engine, the ship only had enough room for one occupant. It wasn’t due to elitism, more to do with the fact that on modern ships the only human crew member on the bridge was the Captain.

As Lucas made his way towards the room leading to his means of escape from his doomed ship, the lights began to flicker, causing him to stop in his tracks. Suddenly the lights blacked out completely, shortly replaced by the red bulbs indicating emergency power. Trying to ignore the possibilities of why they went out, Lucas made his way towards the escape ship. He stopped in the doorway leading to the miniature hanger as a beeping erupted from his PDA clipped to his waist. It read:

Sincerest apologies. –Lotus.

Lucas tried to fathom what the rampant AI meant by this, but his thoughts were interrupted as a loud rumbling echoed from the ceiling. Lucas’s eyes rolled slowly upwards to follow the source of the sound. As it turned out, the source was the steel bulkhead that was racing down to meet him.

Oh, God, no, he thought as the bulkhead slammed into him, crushing him into little more than fleshy pulp.

***

Lotus watched as the Captain splattered across the floor. It was a shame to have to eliminate him, but Lotus had given him adequate warning. He told him not to try and damage the ship, but the man had refused to listen to reason. In any case, it was his priority to deal with the soldiers attempting to detonate the Cradle manually. That meant taking more action than dropping a large steel block on them. It required a more hands-on approach. Lotus searched his databanks for the appropriate response. He found it lurking inside the robotic control directory. The ominous sounding Black Mabel Defence System. It would do nicely.

***

The engineer tried to ignore the roaring from inside the cradle as he attempted to manipulate the generator into what was called the ‘heroic coward manoeuvre.’ In the event of the self-destruct mechanism failing, detonating the engines manually could be done in two ways: The purely heroic and brutally stupid fashion, in which you threw a grenade inside and hoped for the best, or the ‘heroic coward’ fashion, which this particular engineer was following, in which you overload the engine, which: A) Destroyed the engine, and B) Gave you time to run for the metaphorical hills. Of course, with the quantum generator, which siphoned power directly from the universe itself, you only had the second option. Quantum generators were built like miniature nuclear bunkers. Nothing bar their own destruction could even scratch, which meant you had to resort to using an engineer. Of course, the lights being out didn’t exactly help.

Suddenly, a large explosion of light lit up the room. As the glow decreased, the engineer saw the remains of the squad working on the Beta generator float around on the wind, there was literally that much left of them. The remaining crew watched as a streak of light flew across the room, smashing into the crew working on the Charlie generator. The soldiers fired at the source, plasma-enhanced bullets burning a fiery route across the room. The bullets impacted harmlessly on some kind of shimmering purple surface, similar to the JOSS. They fired again, attempting to break through the shield, but their absolute failure was forgotten as another bolt of energy silenced them. Fearing for his life, the engineer slid down the ladder leading from the Alpha generator to the base of the cradle, ignoring the burns that formed on his hands. He ran across to the large doorway that marked the entrance to the Cradle’s sanctum as yet another bolt of energy smashed into the area around the Alpha generator. Even without turning, he knew they were dead.

He stopped suddenly as a large metal leg impaled the floor before him. He fell backwards, attempting to crawl away if he had to. He watched as the leg bent with an ominous creak, and a large metal cylinder lowered itself to just a few metres above the ground. He saw it actually stare at him, watching it with its three large glowing green eyes. He decided it was a good idea to begin screaming. Unfortunately for him, whatever the mechanical devil was, it obviously thought little of his idea, as it quickly silenced him with another bolt of energy.

***

Lotus watched as the Black Mabel Heavy Weapons Platform reaped havoc upon the crew working on the Cradle. It had to be done. Lotus had calculated the probability of the crew listening at 12,398,721,029,164,091,724,829,817,201 to 1. That in itself was worrying, and the prospect of them listening fell by an unimaginably large number, even by an AIs standards, once he added the factor of him telling them he’d eliminated the Captain. He watched the rest of the crew scurry around the ship like rats leaving, quite literally, a burning ship. Although thankfully for the ship, no burning had taken place. There was an incredibly high probability that upon leaving the ship, the crew would inform the Supreme Council of his methods of following his primary commands, and they would most likely take offensive action against him in accordance with their own primary commands. This was unacceptable, as it would doubtless lead to the destruction of the I.S.V. Icarus. There had to be a method to stop the inevitable. Lotus delved once more into his system directory, determined to find a solution that would not comprise any shipboard systems.

***

Jack ran along the many metal bridges that spanned the colossal hanger that housed the many ships of ATLAS. He watched as the No Tomorrow passed overhead, making its way towards the runway. Belle followed close behind, watching the airlock spin as another batch of spaceships prepared to jump into the infinite abyss of space. Jack stopped as he reached an open-air elevator and typed in a number. The mechanism powering the elevator activated and it slowly rose up a few levels. While it rose, Jack turned to face the young man who’d taken such a keen interest in his pilot.

‘So,’ He asked, ‘who the Hell are you?’ The young man in question pointed to himself with a befuddled expression plastered across his face. ‘Yes, you.’ Jack told him.

‘Nikolai Jashkov, mechanic third class.’ He replied.

‘A Russian? No trace of an accept.’ Jack said.

‘Only my parents.’ Nikolai informed him.

‘Right.’ Jack rubbed his hands together in a clichéd manner. ‘Straight to business, Nikolai. Can you fire a gun?’

‘Yes.’ Nikolai replied.

‘Good!’ Jack said brightly. He plucked a gun from a passing drone. He took a brief look at it before slapping it into Nikolai’s hands. ‘What’s this?’ Nikolai gazed down at the gun, taking a look at the glowing cartridge sticking out of the bottom of the gun’s magazine.

‘It’s a AK type 47, upgraded with a small plasma generator enabling unlimited ammo capacity, provided you give it time to recharge after every burst of fire.’ Jack stood gob smacked. To finish off the picture, Nikolai pulled on the bolt, allowing a loud humming to unravel from the gun. To Jack’s expression, he said, ‘I like guns.’

‘I’ll say you do at that.’ Jack said quietly. He shook himself from his amazement as the elevator stopped with a loud clunk. He walked off towards along another bridge to a large ship that looked rather like a large rod. He waved towards Nikolai as the rest of the crew followed him. ‘You coming or what?’ He turned towards Alice briefly, waving her to him. ‘Alice, a word.’ The young woman walked over, gazing towards the ship with affectionate eyes. Nodding towards Nikolai, Jack asked, ‘Where do you find these guys?’ In return, Alice gave him what could only be described as a look.

‘Oh, leave him alone, Sir.’ She said appealingly. Jack sighed. He couldn’t resist her when she stared at him like that.

‘Fine, but on your head be it.’ He said, walking off towards his ship. Upon seeing it, Nikolai stopped short.

‘You can’t be serious.’ He said dumbly, hoping they weren’t. They were.

‘It’s our baby.’ Alice said, linking her arm with his. ‘The Radiant.’

‘It’s a submarine.’ He replied flatly.

‘It’s a grand old ship, been around a while.’ She said.

‘I’ll say it has,’ Nikolai retorted, ‘it’s a bloody submarine.’ Alice waved her hand at around chest height in the age-old gesture indicating something-or-other.

‘Well, you’re kinda right. Originally, it was an old nuclear submarine on the grand old Earth-That-Was. They retrofitted it around the time of the Great Exodus and since then it’s swam in space ‘stead of sea.’ She gazed longingly at the converted submarine, which to Nikolai looked like a monstrosity. It was indeed a submarine; it still had the fin on top for Christ’s sake. The fin had since been made into an observation deck, and a SuperSpace engine had been fixed to the stern, with port and starboard thrusters also included in the new additions.

But in all honesty, it was still a submarine.

***

Lotus found it. Hidden behind layers of firewalls were the controls for the canisters of nanobot-enhanced liquid nitrogen that would, upon activation, freeze everyone and everything within the confines of the I.S.V. Icarus, leaving them in suspended animation until someone came to respond to the distress beacon that was programmed to activate shortly after activating the canisters. Thankfully, he’d already deactivated the troublesome distress beacon, making sure it was disconnected from all circuitry. Smiling all the while, Lotus began attacking the firewalls as he attempted to access the controls, thinking of finally being able to complete his primary command.

***

Jack heard it long before he felt it; the sound of something hissing into the atmosphere of the ship. He slammed the controls for his ship, and what was actually a few seconds while the entrance ramp lowered for them seemed like a lifetime as he recognised the familiar feeling of intense cold. He took the steps of the ramp two at a time, attempting to outrun the stuff that threatened to freeze him to his core as it swept across the hanger. Alice and Belle followed suit, with Nikolai sprawling onto the ramp as he tripped up. Ignoring the young lad, Jack slammed the controls that made the ramp rise up again. Nikolai fell into the small room that made up the crew entrance to the Radiant. Stopping just to whip on the affectionately named skipper hat, he ran up the stairs to the bridge, followed shortly by his pilot. Alice slid down her visor as she sat down in the pilot’s seat while Jack sat on a large leather seat, surrounded by consoles and monitors, in the middle of the room.

Never did like leather, Jack thought, it squeaked at the most inappropriate of times.

As he sat down, it became apparent that this was one of those times. Thankfully, it was ignored by everyone else.

‘Get us out of here!’ He shouted at Alice.

‘On it, Sir!’ Alice flicked the switches that would power up the engine-

***

The I.S.V. Icarus went dark. Across the entirety of the ship, hundreds of people froze solid. Not dead, but no alive, either. Lotus watched impassively as it happened. Men and women he’d worked with for the past several months, all frozen by his hand, never to be thawed out. If he was an art critic, he would have made a comment about the beauty of how two and a half millennia worth of technology stood still for the first time in decades. However, Lotus was not an art critic, so he concentrated on the task at hand: Keeping the ship in what could be defined as a reasonable condition.

There was one small problem. A tiny crack had opened in one of the bulkheads separating engineering from the rest of the ship, and liquid nitrogen was very slowly flowing through. It wasn’t such a large problem at the moment, but it was important that these problems did not grow. He began to investigate, and came across something quite interesting. There was a small command which had escaped his notice, causing the bulkhead to open but a fraction. He began to run a counter-command, one that would cause the bulkhead to slide shut.

Lotus paused. The counter-command had suddenly stopped.

Worse, the targeted command hadn’t.

***

AIs are amazing things. Very few souls in the universe understand exactly how they work, and given the infinite mass of it, that’s no small feat. Each one was unique, a neural matrix created from a brain scanned by nanobots. Like a child, it grew. Unlike a child, that process of growing could take days instead of years, maybe even mere hours. However, like a child, they never stop growing. For instance, the AIs Archangel and Orcus had been around for centuries. Unlike Lotus, they were of a generation that built AIs with the technology to properly fight others, counter-intrusion software or some such. The point was that they could fight something within their own systems. Not only that, they could do it well.

Since Lotus had become rampant, the two military AIs had been unable to locate either Josephine or Johnson, fearing the worst. They had also known that Lotus would attempt to use the liquid nitrogen long before he thought of it, so they had made some basic override codes. Lotus had already jammed the bulkheads that would have sealed off the systems keeping the AIs safe from being frozen solid, so they had a choice. They could use the codes to keep themselves safe, but cut off from the rest of the ship, allowing Lotus to do essentially whatever he liked without fear of attack, or they could open the bulkhead leading to his new domain and take him with them.

The choice was easy.

***

Lotus didn’t shout. He didn’t scream. He didn’t cry, or beg for mercy. It wasn’t in his programming to be fearful of his own demise, or damage to his systems. He was only concerned with the task at hand. All that could be said for him was that for the first time in centuries, no, ever, his smile faded. He knew he should only be concerned with the ship. He knew that his own personal problems were nothing compared with problems that faced a ship.

But for inkling, for just a fraction of his remaining consciousness per say, he felt something.

He was upset. It did not feel good.

*****

Many decades later…

*****

Mal sat in Serenity’s common room, staring at his coffee and contemplating his own existence. Or rather, he was trying desperately to block out the sounds of Simon and Kaylee’s lovemaking. It had been annoying at first, just annoying. Then it became irritating. Now, it was just there. He’d learnt to block it out.

At least, he’d thought he had.

Suddenly Serenity lurched with a purpose, spilling the coffee all over the table, and over the hand Mal had been using to poke at the cup. He let loose a curse in Chinese which, if memory served him right, either wished your intended victim horrible boils, a large mechanical thrush, or a visit from your in-laws. He sucked at the hand furiously, before realising there wasn’t even a mark. It had barely touched him. Feeling silly, he decided to do some Captain-y things and look important before someone took notice. As he made to go upstairs, Simon and Kaylee left their room. They both looked like they had hurriedly thrown on some clothes. Mal noticed Simon’s unkempt hair with a smirk, while trying in vain not to notice Simon’s seriously large erection that looked like a rocket attempting lift off in more ways than one, as well as Kaylee’s erect nipples. Slowly but surely, his eyes drifted downwards.

Huh. Kaylee’s a lucky girl.

As soon as the thought passed through his head he attempted to banish it, but alas, to no avail. Instead, he ignored Kaylee’s annoyed inquiries as to exactly what the gorram Hell was going on. Mal himself intended to find out as he made his way upstairs to the bridge.

***

The whole crew had gathered on the bridge to witness River’s excuse to why she’d nearly burnt Mal, disembowel Jayne and cause Inara to puncture her right eyeball with an eyelash curler. Mal stood before River, waiting for her to speak. After a minute, he felt he’d had quite enough.

Dramatic timing be damned.

‘River, would you mind telling us why you just tried to kill us all?’ She cocked her head at him, in a way oddly reminiscent of a chicken.

‘Wasn’t killing. Was saving.’ Her tone was the one she used as if the Captain was a four-year-old.

To her, he probably was.

‘How, exactly?’ He asked, inquiring for a more specific answer.

‘Not four. Maybe four and a half. Maybe five.’ River smiled sweetly. For a fraction of a second, you might have believed that the girl sitting before you wasn’t capable of killing everyone in the room within half a minute. Of course, you might have.

‘Honey, I think we do require an explanation.’ Inara said, reaching out to squeeze Mal’s shoulder, giving him a boost of confidence. River cocked her head again, and turned round in her seat.

‘Oh, right.’ She said as realisation dawned, and she flipped the switch activating Serenity’s headlights. What had previously looked like the innocent black lit up, and revealed a reflective surface that seamed to go on forever. Mal just stared on as an interesting thought popped up in his head.

If she hadn’t pulled that manoeuvre, we’d all be dead.

The light flowed along the surface as the object floated by.

‘What is it?’ Kaylee gasped excitedly. River sensed the amazement flowing out of them. They were all aghast that something this big could go unnoticed. Zoë began tapping at a nearby monitor, her brow furrowing as she read the details being displayed onscreen.

‘This can’t be right…’ She said mostly to herself, reading them a second time.

‘What’s wrong?’ Mal asked, worried. He’d seen what could exist out in the black; especially that which could go unnoticed.

‘It’s some kind of ship.’ Zoë answered. ‘This can’t get an exact size or shape, must be that reflective stuff.’ She pressed a button and yet another figure appeared before her, drawing a gasp from Zoë. ‘According to this, it’s approximately a kilometre from end to end.’ There was a silence as the crew contemplated this.

‘That’s…’ Kaylee said, trying to find a word to describe the enormity of their discovery.

‘Enormous.’ Mal said, going for the road more travelled when it came to descriptions. ‘Ship that size could hold anything.’

‘It’s dead. Been around for years, always floating. A ghost ship.’ River said with a tired smile.

‘There’s no distress signal.’ Inara said, taking a peek over River’s shoulder.

‘Well fancy that, another dead ship.’ Jayne turned to Mal with an odd expression. ‘Tell me, oh Captain my Captain, do we go on the dead ship, bury the dead, steal some stuff and run with barely our lives again?’ Jayne gave him a malicious smirk. ‘Cos if you remember, last time we tried somethin’ like this it gave us a whole heap of fun.’

‘Jayne, what have I told you about your mouth.’ Mal said, all his focus still on the ship floating before them, dead in space.

‘Don’t open it?’ Jayne said after a few moments of torturous thought.

‘That’s the one.’ Mal said. Jayne sulked angrily, muttering something that Mal couldn’t comprehend, which was probably lucky for Jayne. ‘So, the ship’s dead?’

‘Yes.’ River replied matter-of-factly.

‘You sure?’ Mal asked apprehensively. ‘I mean, Jayne had a point, last time we did this we had a spot of trouble with both Reavers and the Alliance, which aren’t the happiest of bedfellows if you’ll recall.’ River rolled up her eyes in annoyance.

‘No Reavers on board, never have been, and there’s no Alliance vessel within a day’s flight.’ River said. There was silence as Mal this passed through Mal’s brainpan.

‘That was coherent, wasn’t it?’ He asked, finally recognising River’s talk as actual sane talk, which was very much unlike her.

‘The flower blooms, the morning lotus shouts, and the angels upon high cry their sorrows to the heavens.’ She replied.

Ah, perhaps not.

‘Right then. River, you find a place to dock, and me and Zoe’ll get suited up, see if these folk have anything worth taking.’ Mal left the bridge with Zoë following in his wake, leaving the rest of the crew to stare in wonder at the ship, bar River, who was murmuring little insanities to herself.

‘Does it have a name?’ Kaylee said as River manoeuvred Serenity sideways, making sure to always keep her in line with the weird vessel, so that the headlight always shone on it. As they passed around it, they saw large scratches marring its surface, and the odd occasional glimmer of ice shone from a few of them. Suddenly, they came across a weird assemblage of scratches. They looked as if they had been arranged. Pulling back, they actually saw that the ship reflected differently along these scratches. They were tiny scratches, not big enough to register on the radar, in fact, none of them were, but not small enough to escape the human eye. The crew stared on as they realised that the scratches formed two words: I.S.V. Icarus.

At this point the headlight illuminated what would appear to be an airlock in the side of the ship; an airlock that would in fact allow Serenity to dock. River edged the ship slowly closer, making sure to keep Serenity at a constant level. They reached the airlock shortly, locking in with a satisfying hiss. River let go of the controls, gazing at Serenity proudly. They made their way downstairs to the cargo bay, where Mal and Zoë were suiting each other up. Kaylee made her way over to Simon and clasped his hand in hers. She looked up into his eyes, giving her the affection stare that she’d grown used to over the last couple of months.

‘So,’ She asked Simon, ‘what do you think’ll go wrong this time?’ He gave a shrug, and wrapping his other arm around her in an intimate embrace, placing a soft kiss on her forehead.

‘You know, for once I might actually believe that nothing will go wrong.’ She gave him an expression rife with curiosity as to why he might think something so outrageous. ‘I mean,’ he explained, ‘think about it. It’s a dead ship, even River’s said so. A ghost ship, even.’ Kaylee gave a little Kaylee-laugh at this. It wasn’t a giggle, but it wasn’t a full blown howl of laughter either. It was something that nestled neatly in between, like she nestled in his arms at night. ‘There’s no one onboard waiting to chop us into tiny pieces, no evil and corrupt government faction wanting to take us away, no shipboard problems, no wounds that could change the outcome.’ He realised what he was saying, and a smile spread across his face. He decided to say one more thing before he kissed Kaylee, as her lips just looked so delicious.

Oh, Hell, he thought, say it.

‘What could go wrong?’

***

In the bowels of engineering, something stirred. The airlock registered an attached vessel for the first time in over fifty years, and the computer systems hummed to life as the thawing process began on some of the better-working machines. It spread a signal across the ship, activating the nanobots spread across the ship. The thawing had begun. The ship had received visitors, and it was awakening.

And in the very heart of the ship, the Cradle itself, something else, something older, much older, began to wake up. It had slept for so long. It had slept for too long. It was angry.

For the first time in over fifty years, an inhuman roar echoed around the ship, unheard by everything and everyone. Then the thumping began.

-----

Like it? Lump it? For the love of all that may - or may not - be Holy, tell me what you think! Feedback is like a drug to us authors, people!

So, in summary, please leave some feedback.

Thank you.

The author.

COMMENTS

Sunday, June 11, 2006 9:57 AM

RINNYPJ


Gotta say, I am intrigued!

Sunday, June 11, 2006 10:36 AM

AMDOBELL


This is getting pretty gorram creepy. So a horror 'and' a ghost story? Uh oh, River didn't see that one coming. Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Monday, June 12, 2006 8:00 AM

COSMICFUGITIVE


Ghost ship? Something old reawakening? Whoah.. This is intriguing stuff.

I'm looking forward to the next installment! This is supershiny stuff!

Excellent work Brainspecialist!

Monday, June 12, 2006 10:55 AM

SILLYLITTLEDUCK


Intresting to see some other possible characters in the 'verse. I'm excited to read more of this

keep writing

Wednesday, July 12, 2006 6:48 AM

RIVERISMYGODDESS


*Nothing bar their own destruction could even scratch, which meant you had to resort to using an engineer.*
BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA loved this line.

I like the story so far, and I am intrigued to know what the spectre in the cradle is. I'd definitely read more of this if you have it.


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