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HOTPOINT

Here Be Dragons (Part XIX)
Wednesday, September 1, 2004

The story of the Iron Brigade is told


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 3175    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

Disclaimer – Everything either does belong to Joss or it should. I’m just borrowing his shiny ‘verse for a while.

The 21st Lancers belong to the British Army so I’m borrowing them too. I hope they don’t mind.

Thanks to my regular readers for making it worthwhile to continue the story and special thanks to my Proof-Reader Landry.

* * *

Serenity/Granite Gorge – Drifting – 2520AD

The scout pilot was the first person to break the stunned silence. ‘If I don’t get some answers soon you’ll regret it,’ she declared. ‘Who are you people and why do you have our codes?’

‘Reach for that pistol,’ Jayne stated, ‘and you’ll be the one with the regrets,’ he said swinging the barrel of his Callahan so that it was aimed squarely at the woman.

She looked deeply unimpressed.

‘She’s not thinking of pulling a gun on us Jayne,’ River announced. ‘Before she docked she started her reactor on countdown, if the right code isn’t entered in the next couple of minutes we’re all dead.’

The Scout Pilot’s eyes widened.

‘Same way I know the shutdown code is your father’s birth-year plus the total number of hours you’ve logged in a pilot seat,’ River said smiling. ‘And no you didn’t ask that out loud.’

‘Long story short,’ Wash interjected, ‘telepaths are real. Well some of them are but just the one’s they make.’ He paused. ‘By “they” I mean the Alliance Government, well kinda, but we aren’t anything to do with the Alliance they don’t like us at all so don’t worry about that.’

‘Your favourite colour is orange,’ River said, ‘you’re scared of spiders. The number you’re thinking of to test me is seventy-two and no you aren’t going crazy and believe me, I know because I’ve been there. Oh yes I also know your name rank and serial number Lieutenant Doyle so please dismiss the thought of starting to recite it in lieu of saying anything else because it’ll get old fast.’

The new arrival had the sympathy of all present because they had to admit it did take some accepting but they were all fairly amused by the dumbstruck expression of utter disbelief.

Mal broke the moment first. ‘Stop showing off, River,’ he ordered then turned to the Scout Pilot. ‘Name’s Reynolds I’m Captain of this boat. Trust me we’ve got just as many questions as you do, maybe more, but I reckon if you don’t shutdown that Reactor ain’t none of us going to get any answers,’ he said.

‘And if you don’t snap out of it we’ll shut it down for you,’ Zoe said. ‘River’s got the code and I’ll knock you on your ass if you try and stop her doing it herself so you might as well go ahead.’

Still wearing a dazed expression the woman turned around and stepped back onto her ship.

Mal threw a glance at River who nodded answering his unspoken question as to whether she was actually shutting down the overload or not.

Mal Reynolds turned to his crew. ‘I’m thinking coffee in the galley,’ he said. ‘I reckon we’ve got things to discuss.’

‘She takes it white with sugar,’ River said.

‘Didn’t I tell you to stop showing off?’

* * *

‘I just don’t see how it could be done,’ Zoe stated flatly. ‘No way the Alliance wouldn’t notice a whole gorram battle group missing at the end of the war. Independent Navy wasn’t that big to start with they must have accounted for them all.’

‘They did account for them all, or they thought they did. That’s how we got away with it,’ Doyle said still looking around warily especially at River. ‘Inflated combat reports.’

‘What?’ Kaylee asked.

Mal spoke up. ‘When we fought the Alliance, they’d always claim to have inflicted more casualties than they had. Afterwards we’d broadcast the actual losses with evidence to show they were damn liars.’

Lieutenant Doyle nodded. ‘Eighteen months before the end command started to put together a new task force beyond the rim. If say we fought a battle and the Alliance claimed they took out half a dozen Frigates and three Destroyers but they really only got four Frigates and one Destroyer our counter propaganda would say they got five and two.’

Steven chuckled. ‘So now there’s a Frigate and a Destroyer that the Alliance thinks they’ve already destroyed and they believe our version because we’d basically been telling the truth until then and they knew their reports were usually inflated but they didn’t know by how much.’ Steve took a sip of tea. ‘Not exactly the greatest piece of military subterfuge ever but I like it’

Mal’s face darkened. ‘Are you telling me that there was an intact fleet still out there when we were fighting for our lives in the Valley?’ he thundered. ‘Even a few more warships would have turned the tide. We nearly held them.’

‘If you think we didn’t want to ride to the rescue you’re dead wrong,’ Doyle said defensively. ‘We were under orders. Our mission was too important.’

‘What mission?’ Zoe asked in a similar tone of voice to her Captains.

Doyle clammed up.

‘Decade old secret orders aren’t important any more,’ River announced. ‘They were being readied for a strike on the core. The Independent’s last throw of the dice.’

The Lieutenant looked at the girl. It was still hard to get used to the idea she was reading her mind.

‘What mission?’ Mal asked

Doyle cast her eyes downwards. ‘If Hera fell we were to head to Londinium and destroy it. If the Alliance didn’t offer a truce we were to hit Shinon as well.’

‘Destroy Londinium?’ Inara repeated aghast. ‘How do you destroy a world?’

‘Cobalt Jacketed Thermo nukes, thousand megaton yield each. Destroy all the big cities and produce enough fallout with a long half-life to render the planet uninhabitable for centuries.’ the Aerospace Lieutenant said dispassionately. ‘With most of the Ally fleet stuck around Hera or hunting down the rest of the fleet they had nothing big enough left in the Core to stop us.’

Book closed his eyes. ‘Armageddon,’ he said quietly.

‘But the Alliance would have retaliated. They’d have burned every Independent Planet down to the bedrock,’ Steven stated. ‘If we’d just vaporised hundreds of millions of people, even if the Alliance Government had agreed to terms their Fleet would have mutinied and nuked us anyway.’

Doyle shook her head. ‘I’m not disagreeing but the Top Brass thought it was our last resort. We had to actually do it, show the resolve, if we just threatened to do it they’d either not believe us or transfer forces back core-wards so we couldn’t do it.’

‘But Hera did fall,’ Wash said. ‘Why the hell is the human race still here?’

Doyle reached for the coffee pot. ‘Because just after we set off we got an order countermanding the mission,’ she answered.

‘You were actually underway?’

Doyle nodded. ‘We were a quarter of the way to Londinium when we were told to turn back. The civilian administration back home had decided to surrender and the Brass called us off.’ Doyle smiled wryly. ‘Those Purple-Bellies never knew what nearly hit them.’

‘But if you got the order to surrender…’

Doyle shook her head. ‘It’s one thing to obey an order not to kill a planet full of civilians but there was no way the old man was going to lay down arms. He told us he was going to head out and find a new home and we followed him.’

‘Leaving your families behind?’ Inara asked incredulously. ‘Why would you do that?’

‘None of us had any family,’ the Lieutenant stated. ‘Biggest collection of orphans, singles, widows and widowers you’ve ever seen. They knew people with families wouldn’t be likely to carry out the order because of the likely retribution so they manned the ships with those that had as few ties back home as they could find.’

Doyle put down her coffee. ‘I got an order one day to report to HQ and the next thing I knew I was on a transport full of crewmen from all over the fleet none of whom had a clue where the hell we were headed.’ She raised her cup again ‘Independent Aerospace Force. It’s not just a job it’s an adventure.’

‘I wonder if all the rumours about the Independent Navy coming back from exile and laying waste to the core were really just rumours or if the truth leaked out,’ Simon observed. ‘They’ve certainly got the ring of truth about them now.’

‘Maybe that was a disinformation campaign hide the truth in plain sight? The Alliance knew there wasn’t enough missing hardware for it to be true so they probably thought any stories they heard were just our propaganda,’ Mal theorised. ‘Heck that’s what I thought.’

‘But why didn’t the Independent authorities tell the Alliance about the missing fleet after the surrender?’ Kaylee asked.

Doyle smirked. ‘Well for a start hardly anyone knew about us and I’m guessing those that did weren’t about to tell anyone that just before the war ended they’d ordered us to kill most of the core population. They’d have ended up on the end of a rope even if they did rescind the order before we actually did it.’

‘So you really just all took your ships and just left?’

‘Found a new home planted the flag. Admiral always says as long as it flies over a single world the Ally’s will have never won the war. They just think they did’

‘But it’s been nine years,’ Inara said. ‘The war is over, you do know that right?’

Doyle didn’t even think that dignified an answer.

* * *

The conversation had continued to dinner. Mal had filled the newcomer in on the crew’s story which if anything was even more incredible to her than hers was to the crew. Telepathic assassins, evil corporate conspiracies, AI warships and bounty hunters were a stretch for anyone at the first meeting.

‘I’m astonished you held together this long,’ Book said wonderingly.

‘Reavers,’ River declared. ‘The Reavers did it.’

The Lieutenant gnashed her teeth. ‘Gôushî bùrú vermin,’ she growled. ‘We’ve been trying to exterminate them for years.’

‘That’s the secret. Fighting the Reavers kept them together, kept them cohesive, kept them still thinking like a military formation not refugees,’ River said.

‘What happened?’ Wash asked.

Doyle had been eating a plate of pasta with some considerable relish but dropped her fork onto the plate. ‘Well starting at the beginning after getting back to base we grabbed everything that we could load on the ships and burned for the Deep Black. We had a couple of factory ships at base because we had to make our own spares, couldn’t exactly order parts from central supply marked for delivery to “Secret Fleet” so we took those with us.’

‘What about food, raw materials?’

‘Commerce Raiders were still hitting Ally Shipping for months after the war. Quite a lot of that was us, we even managed to pick up a couple more bitterenders who hadn’t surrendered either.’

‘Bitterenders?’

The Lieutenant nodded. ‘It’s a word the Admiral used so we all picked it up he’s from Pretoria, Afrikaner stock. Said it was a word used by his people to describe the last soldiers of his people to stop fighting in an old war on Earth-That-Was. They fought to the bitter end so “Bitterenders”.’

Steven winced. ‘Afrikaner?’ he said groaning. ‘It’s bloody van der Heijden isn’t it. I thought he was bloody dead.’

Doyle nodded.

‘You know him?’ Mal asked surprised.

‘I met him at a function once back in zero-eight when I’d just been made up to Captain, my Regiment was attached to Sector Fourteen Command with the Second Fleet so they held a dinner where the Army and Navy could meet and greet.’ Steve sighed. ‘He was a Commodore then, as soon as he heard my accent he spent the whole night telling everyone that my ancestors had put his in a concentration camp.’

‘Boer War 1898 to 1902,’ River intoned. ‘British eventually subjugated the Afrikaner Boer Republics by putting their civilian population into concentration camps an idea they got from the Spanish who had been using them previously.’

‘Not a glorious episode of our history,’ Steven admitted, ‘but it was six hundred years ago. The way he talked about it you’d think it was the week before’

Doyle snarled. ‘I’ll have nothing said against the Admiral,’ she said menacingly. ‘He held us together.’

Steven raised his hands palms out. ‘Relax Lieutenant I’m not criticising him just saying my personal experience wasn’t rosy. Lots of people thought my old commander was a chûnrén but if anyone said that to my face I’d feel like dropping them too.’

The Lieutenant calmed down. ‘Admiral van der Heijden led us to a new home. He says we’re the new voortrekkers.’

‘Voortrekkers?’ Steven said. ‘The man decided to re-enact the Great Trek. And people think I dwell on history too much.’

‘What the hell are you talking about?’ Mal demanded to know.

‘Long story short, several decades before the Boer War the Afrikaners decided they didn’t want to live under the British and made a Great Trek north from where they previously lived in the British territory on the Southern tip of Africa. The name voortrekker means pioneer or some such. I’m guessing that van der Heijden decided to do the same thing to avoid living under the Alliance.’

‘Lots of folks have tried that.’

‘Yes but they didn’t have the firepower to match the intention. I’m betting that Reavers ate most of them which is why we haven’t met any out here.’

‘Tried eating us, too,’ Doyle said. ‘We got caught unawares at first, lost a couple of small ships who were scouting. Even lost a few Aerospace Fighters but never found the wreckage.’

‘I think we met them,’ Wash interrupted. ‘The fighters I mean, we ran into a load of Reaver ships a while back and they had a short squadron of Angels with them. We wondered where the hell they came from.’

‘If you know where they are we’ll go get them.’

‘For the most part they’re scattered in pieces all over a colony a couple of months hard burn from here. Shadow had them badly outclassed.’

‘Shadow?’

‘It’s what we call the AI Warship we picked up. Two-thirds the size of a Frigate, maybe three times the firepower, seriously bad news,’ Wash replied.

‘You can’t get that much firepower in a vessel that size. Not if you want to power it,’ the aerospace officer said. ‘I can’t believe the Alliance is flying birds like that yet.’

‘Well if you take out the cockpit and life-support you gain a lot of room and anyway they aren’t really flying birds like that yet. Shadow’s a prototype; engine, construction materials, weaponry, electronics everything is beyond state of the art. He should have been going through testing but they needed an AI ship to catch River and it was the only one they had,’ Kaylee replied. ‘If you like machinery he’s a wonder.’

‘What about the Reavers?’ Wash said interrupting before Kaylee started to describe Shadow’s mechanical workings in detail.

‘Well after we realised what was going on we taught them a lesson. Problem is they just aren’t fast learners. Gorram fanatics have been fighting us for years, you wouldn’t believe how many we had to kill before they stopped trying to raid us. I mean what kind of lunatic tries attacking a Destroyer with a hundred year old transport. We didn’t even need to use the main guns most days but they just kept coming.’

‘But we know they retreated in the end.’

She nodded. ‘The raids started tailing off about four years ago, but then just over a year back they seemed to sort themselves out again and attacked as a big group. I suppose they thought they could overwhelm us but they just didn’t realise how outgunned they really were.’

‘What happened?’

‘We’d been hoping for a stand-up fight since we first got out here and the stupid bastards went and gave us one,’ she grinned. ‘We shot the shit out of them, it was great, the Admiral formed a battle line just like the old days and we just torched them before they could get close enough to hit back. Then we caught another break and found the location of a couple of their bases on a black box in the wreckage. So we went there are blew the crap out of them too. Rutting savages.’

‘Then they ran?’

‘Then they ran. Every single damn Reaver within a month’s hard burn just packed up and left. We caught up with one ship and found out they were all heading this way so the Admiral decided to send some scouts after them. If we found a new base, call in the heavies and blast it. Make sure they keep going away from where we are.’

‘You do know you’re pushing them towards folks who might not have seen them otherwise?’

Doyle nodded. ‘Inevitable I suppose but we’ve killed so many Reavers we’ve still saved a lot more lives than we might have accidentally ended.’

‘You know if you’ve been killing Reavers off for this long I’d have expected the number of ships lost to them to have dropped off a lot more than they have.’

The Lieutenant broke out into a broad smile. ‘You know if anyone was keeping count of missing ships attributed to Reavers they might notice a really disproportionate number of Alliance Transports.’

‘You’re kidding?’

‘Admiral figured that if the Reavers were hitting ships before and the Alliance weren’t doing much about it then they wouldn’t do much about it if we started hitting ships instead. We even use captured Reaver ships to do it in, EMP the thing kill the crew, clean the boat up some and put the radiation shielding back in and you’ve got yourself a hell of a pirate boat.’

‘Kill the crew?’

‘Yeah we usually just cut a hole in the hull and space them if we can. If that don’t work the Marines get some fun.’

‘Marines?’

‘Task force had a battalion of Marines attached, spread amongst the ships. Idea was if the crews mutinied and refused to drop the nukes the jarheads would put them down. Damn insult if you ask me but they’re good for boarding parties.’

‘A battalion of marines. You mean like eight hundred of them?’ Mal gasped.

‘Closer to a thousand. We picked up another company of them just after the war who were still fighting, you know those boys. ‘Semper Fidelis’ and all that.’

Inara looked around the room. ‘I really should have asked this earlier but I just got it into my head there just wasn’t quite that many of you. Exactly how many of you are there my Dear?’

‘You mean total? After we picked up the bitterenders that pushed our number up some so I’d say there’s probably just upwards of nine thousand of us, well that’s not counting the marines so ten thousand or thereabouts.’

Mals eyes widened ‘Ten thousand?’ he said stunned.

‘There’s eleven hundred on Scylla and Charybdis alone. I told you we were a full Task Force.’

Wash was the most knowledgeable on such things. ‘That’s a gorram heavy complement for a couple of ships.’

‘No I meant eleven hundred apiece.’

There was little Wash could say to that except ‘Pardon?’

‘Are we talking a couple of battalion troop transports,’ Zoe asked. ‘I remember those from the war but I really didn’t think you could have anything that big.’

The IAF Lieutenant turned to River. ‘I thought you could read my mind?’ Doyle asked looking a bit confused.

‘I can but it’s more fun when you tell them.’

Doyle frowned. ‘We were supposed to take out the Core Planets. Even with most of the fleet away we’d still need to fight our way in and the orbital defences alone would be too much for most ships.’ She paused. ‘Scylla and Charybdis aren’t troop transports,’ she said ‘they’re Battlecruisers.’

I absolutely adore that expression on the Captain’s face,’ River thought.

Part XX

COMMENTS

Wednesday, September 1, 2004 7:45 AM

GUILDSISTER


Absolutely kick-ass chapter! You have me hooked totally--great scenario setup and dialog to tell it.

I do hope you'll spend some time in a future part inside Mal's head as he ponders all this that just smacked him.

Wednesday, September 1, 2004 11:28 AM

AMDOBELL


Love, love, LOVE the fun River had watching the Captain's face knowing exactly what was coming and how it would hit him. Gorrammit, this is a mighty fine myth. Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Wednesday, September 1, 2004 1:38 PM

MALSDOXY


Hotpoint, you surely know what buttons to push...I can't wait for the next installment... tens of thousands of Browncoats ...so very shiny

Wednesday, September 1, 2004 8:48 PM

CASTIRONJACK


Good stuff. Reading it from start to finish was a real treat.

Keep flyin'


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