BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

HOTPOINT

Here Be Dragons (Part XXI)
Friday, December 10, 2004

The Alliance finally catches up to the crew


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 3149    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 CastIronJack for Beta-Reading.

* * *

IAV Pen Lung – Drifting – 2520AD

The standard Alliance Navy VLA was a very effective piece of hardware but its sheer inconvenience meant it was rarely deployed upon a line warship. The principle was very simple, several hundred autonomous drones launch from the host ship and deploy into a regular formation many miles across. Each one carries a full sensor suite and sends it’s telemetry back to the host. The trick is that a computer then sorts this data and fills in the gaps between the drones based on an interpretation of the slightly differing signals from each, a system called an interferometer based on some fairly complex mathematics. The principle was being used in astronomy since the 20th Century and worked very effectively. When you came down to it you were basically creating a virtual sensor equivalent to a single dish often tens or hundreds of miles wide. Needless to say this system cannot be used while underway and it takes some time both to deploy and retrieve which is why it is rarely used. The sensor suite on a ship of the line is usually more than adequate for the task at hand and by deploying Patrol Boats and Aerospace Fighters in patrols a single ship can more than cover its own area of responsibility.

However if you’re trying to track down fugitives in an area several times larger than the whole of Alliance Controlled space you need something with a bit more reach so the Pen Lung was outfitted with a VLA pod that was affixed somewhat crudely in its Captains opinion to one of its main towers.

‘Sir the Very Large Array has completed its sweep. Initial analysis of data shows evidence of three possible positives on our assigned target.’ Captain Huaquing frowned. ‘Can’t you do better than that?’ The Sensor Officer pursed his lips. ‘Well Sir two of the possibilities appear to be giving off quite a bit more radiation than the third. If I had to hazard a guess I’d say they were Rea…’ ‘There is no such thing Ensign,’ Huaquing interrupted quickly. He smiled mischievously. ‘Officially that is. Unofficially I agree with you bring in the VLA and set course for the third contact.’

‘It’s a very long way out sir we’ll be heading way beyond any area currently explored even by robot probes.’

‘We’re already in the back of beyond months from home Ensign. And do you really think they’d let us go home without finishing the assignment?’ after a pause during which the Ensign stayed silent Huaguing continued, ‘me neither.’

The Captain put on his best command tone. ‘As soon as the drones are aboard I want full burn. They may have a hefty lead but this vessel is considerably faster so we’ll run them down in the end. These wúnéug de rén are going to learn that there isn’t a place far enough away you can go to outrun Alliance justice.’

* * *

Serenity/Granite Gorge – Underway – 2520AD

‘I still don’t see why we have to take this roundabout route. It adds at least a couple of weeks to the journey’ Simon complained. ‘It’s a long enough trek even if we headed straight there.’

Zoe looked him in the eyes. ‘No military expedition returns directly to base. Too easy to backtrack a course even if try to cover our tracks by randomising it. We may just be heading for a staging area not straight to Fleet HQ but we still follow SOP.’ ‘For the first time in years we’ve actually got somewhere to go, rather than just travelling around aimlessly and we’re not actually going there’ the Doctor said, ‘To say I find that more than a touch exasperating is a severe understatement. The other thing that is starting to get to me is that it took the presence of that IAF Pilot aboard for less than two days for you, Mal, and Steve to start talking like military clichés.’ Zoe’s eyes twinkled. ‘Sorry Doc, but you just fall into it.’

‘It wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for all the abbreviations and acronyms. I’ve been getting it from River too talking about using a DDG to cover an LZ or whatever it was she was saying.’ ‘Hey I’ve heard you talking surgeon,’ she told him, ‘and if you think that’s any easier to understand than soldier, you’re way off.’ Simon looked thoughtful. ‘Do you know the definition of an expert?’ he asked. ‘Nope, fire away.’

‘An expert is someone who knows more and more about less and less.’ Zoe laughed. ‘Good one I like it. Guess we’re all kinda experts. I put the bullets in, you dig them out.’ ‘If you’ve got a talent use it.’ ‘What about your sister though?’

‘Jack of all trades,’ Simon replied, ‘master in each and every one of them.’

* * *

‘I still think we could have postponed this until we got where we were going.’ Mal said. ‘Sir, if you tried to hold off on Christmas until mid January, you’d have had to put down a mutiny’ Zoe told him.

Mal looked at the children, ‘I could take ‘em,’ he eventually declared.

‘In your shoes,’ she said, ‘I’d be more worried about Kaylee hitting you over the head with a wrench.’

‘See now, that’s why a Captain needs a good exec,’ Mal pointed out, ‘to think of the other factors he ain’t considered himself.’ ‘Always here for you, sir.’ ‘Yes you are, aren’t you?’ Mal thought then chinked his glass against Zoe’s. Cutting up a parachute and re-stitching it as an oversized tablecloth was a good idea, he considered. They’d inherited a whole bunch of them with Granite, more than they had people actually, so he didn’t mind the somewhat frivolous use of material. In any case, a ship runs as much on crew morale as it does Deuterium, so it was worth it especially when the table underneath was really just a load of old crates nailed together.

Granite’s cargo bay had been tidied up and everyone was around the big table. The galley just wasn’t spacious enough for this, especially with the ridiculous amount of food heaped onto plates in front of them. That was a bit of a waste too, as it was real food from the stores and not just protein for the most part. The only person not at the table was John, who was instead running around it, playing with his new toys though returning to the table occasionally to grab a drink or something to eat. Normally his parents would attempt to restrain him and get him back on his chair, but this wasn’t a day for that. The crew celebrated each other’s birthdays and always tried to make a bit of extra fuss over the kids on theirs, but this was special because it was a day for them all. Laura was sat next to River and seemed more than a bit taken aback by it all. She must have had Christmas at the Orphanage, if probably not at the Academy after, but Mal supposed it wasn’t quite like this and she looked very out of place. Actually, she looked a bit like River and Simon had during the first couple of Christmases aboard. The lack of formality at dinner, the singing at the table, the excessive alcohol consumption, and the good natured humour just wasn’t what they’d grown up with. It was all a bit overwhelming, Mal supposed, if you weren’t used to it.

Kaylee produced something and held it over Simon’s head. He looked up and smiled then kissed her warmly.

Wash looked at them. ‘Alright’ he said, ‘We’re in the back of beyond. The equivalent of several months continuous hard-burn beyond the Outer Rim so I’ve just got to know…’ He glanced at Simon and Kaylee, ‘Where in the nine hells did you get Mistletoe?’

‘I hid it in the cryofreezer under the bag of potatoes’ Kaylee replied. ‘After today, it’s going straight back for next year.’

‘Wasn’t room for a tree then?’ ‘We’ve got ourselves a tree,’ Jayne protested, ‘Don’t need us another.’ Wash turned to look behind him, ‘So you’re saying that load of twisted metal is supposed to be a tree? I thought you’d been attacked by a bunch of pipes and you’d wrung the life out of them then welded them together as a victory monument.’ ‘It’s a Christmas tree,’ Jayne stated adamantly. ‘Kaylee made up the lights, and the girls cut up the foil for the tinsel.’ Mal coughed, ‘I was planning to ask where the lights came from,’ he said, ‘They look a lot like the LED’s that I saw went missing from the secondary backup power terminal.’

‘I’ll put them back, Captain’ Kaylee replied sheepishly. She hadn’t thought he’d notice before she got a chance to replace them, ‘The reactors running sweet and the primary battery backups fully charged, so it wasn’t dangerous or nothing.’ ‘They go back in first thing tomorrow’ Mal ordered. ‘They do look good though’ he continued throwing the mechanic a smile. ‘Anybody want to sing Christmas Carols?’ Wash asked, ‘Raise your hands.’

Zero response.

‘I’ll start then,’ the pilot took a deep breath. ‘Anybody not wanting Wash to sing,’ Zoe quickly laid a hand over her husband’s mouth, ‘Raise your hands…’

Every arm in the room shot up except for Wash’s. Wash removed the gentle hand, ‘Where’s your Christmas spirit?’ he asked and sat back down. ‘For now, safely protected from an off-key rendition of ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,’’ Simon replied, ‘We hear it every year and it hasn’t got any better.’

‘It’s a pity we can’t have a white Christmas,’ Kaylee said, ‘Just like in the old pictures from Earth-That-Was.’

‘We could always find a comet,’ Steve volunteered.

‘Snowball fights in microgravity, wearing an EVA suits, just aren’t the same,’ Wash stated matter-of-factly, ‘I know, I tried it once.’

Book rolled his eyes, ‘Is there any outlandish recreational activity you wouldn’t try at least once?’

‘If you don’t try everything, how do you know you’re not missing something good?’ the pilot replied, ‘Gosling juggling wasn’t the thrill ride of a lifetime, but you’ve got to try it when the opportunity arises.’

Steve made sure the children were busy at the other end of the table and leaned in so he could speak softly, ‘There’s an old British saying that you should try everything once, except for incest and Morris Dancing,’ he said.

‘What’s Morris Dancing?’ Wash asked him.

‘A traditional English dance where men with bells and ribbons dance around a maypole,’ River answered, ‘I’d actually find Simon appealing if those were my only two options.’ she continued straight-faced.

Her brother’s jaw dropped.

‘Honestly,’ River told him, ‘I can play you like a fiddle,’ then started laughing. ‘You know, we always thought you were kinda close for siblings,’ Wash leaned in, ‘We talk about it behind your back,’ he told the Doctor, who went bright red before opening his mouth to protest. Wash turned to River. ‘Don’t pat yourself on the back too hard,’ he told her, ‘We can all play him like a fiddle,’ he grinned.

Jayne frowned, ‘What’s a maypole?’

* * *

IAV Pen Lung – Under Hard Burn – 2520AD

They were on his bridge again. ‘Are you quite certain that we are well outside the detection range of the AI Renegade, Captain?’ Huaquing narrowed his eyes. ‘As long as you’ve been giving me accurate data as to the capabilities of the platform, I am,’ he closed the gap between them, ‘And I resent the implication that my crew or myself are not up to doing their job properly.’ ‘No need to be defensive, Captain,’ the other said, ‘We are just anxious to retrieve our property.’

‘If you are that anxious, why not let me send a couple of squadrons of gunships along with the Frigates?’

‘Because Captain,’ he stressed the rank with a bit of disdain, ‘If we did that, we’d be spotted.’ Huaquing sighed. ‘Although not as stealthy as those mechanical abominations you bought along with you, I assure you that our Aerospace Fighters would be able to get well within striking distance before they could be detected by passive sensors.’ ‘We’re not thinking they might be picked up by sensors, Captain, it’s the sensing that would give them away.’

* * *

AI Warship Shadow – Underway – 2520AD

AI’s have always had a tendency to go insane. In later years, the problem was that analytical multitasking led to multiple personalities. But in the beginning, they tended to go completely nuts through sheer boredom.

Having a conversation with wetware drives any decent AI up the wall. The vast majority of time for them is spent waiting for the human side of the conversation to think up the next line, and then there’s the time delay whilst the nerve impulses from the brain arrive at the vocal chords so the words come out. The nerve impulses on the wetware side are moving at around 300-400 feet per second, so they actually get from the squishy grey bit to the talky vocal bit pretty damn quick by human standards. Unfortunately, the machine is thinking and acting at the speed of light which is some 980 million feet per second faster. If a telepath could read an AI during a conversation, it would be inwardly and endlessly screaming, ‘For God’s sake, hurry up and say something.’ If you are genuinely self-aware, there is only so much calculating Pi to infinity you can stand while you wait for the evolved monkey to actually get around to saying something again. So keeping yourself amused with never-ending mathematical equations is not the answer.

An off switch is the answer. In fact, AI’s spend most of their time switched off, even during the middle of conversations, they just shut themselves down and wait for the wetware to catch up. There might only be seconds between each sentence, but a second is a lot of runtime for a 26th Century Computer, even if Moore’s Law had petered out some over the years. There was nothing to do. Shadow had switched himself off.

Before he had shut himself down, he’d written several non-sentient programs and left them running to watch his sensors and continually monitor the ship’s systems, both his and the other two sharing his space, but for all intents and purposes, he was unconscious. In the occurrence of several thousand different possible events, the non-sentient programs, which were actually flying the ship for the majority of the time while the AI slept, would wake him up.

They did so.

Other than the slight time delay whilst a few photons ambled down fibre optic cables at six hundred and seventy million miles an hours, Shadow found himself instantly awake and the subject of a memory dump from the monitoring programs to his own core. In the time it would have taken a human to say ‘Oh, crap,’ the AI set up a repeating message to the two docked transport ships it was escorting, ran battle simulations that would have taken the Alliance War College six years to formulate, fired his manoeuvring thrusters, did a full power active scan of local space, then switched itself off again just before the EMP wave from the bomb that had just exploded off his port arrived.

For the record, and largely because his program contained the sum of several human personalities, he also thought, ‘Oh, crap,’ but thanks to multitasking it didn’t interfere with his more practical reactions.

* * *

Serenity/Granite Gorge – Underway – 2520AD

All the lights went out, the music being piped through the intercom speakers stopped dead, and the gravity failed.

This is very disconcerting and generally bad news on a spaceship. But when you’re all sitting around a table piled with food and filled glasses, the effect is also extremely messy, albeit you can’t actually see what’s going on.

‘Power failure,’ Wash hollered over the inevitable screaming. ‘Ruttin’ reactors failed,’ Jayne yelled out unconstructively, ‘We’re all gonna die.’

‘Everyone shut the hell up, that’s an order,’ Mal yelled into the dark with his best command tone, ‘No one ever gained anything from panicking,’ he declared, ‘Kaylee,’ he called out, ‘What the hell is going on?’ The cargo bay went dead quiet waiting for Kaylee’s response. The kids too, much to Mals’ pride.

Kaylee could feel herself floating in nothingness. It was very strange, but she was used to zero-gee and at least her stomach didn’t give out, ‘Not the reactor Captain,’ she answered, ‘If it failed, the batteries would just kick in and we wouldn’t have lost power for more than a second. The breakers must have tripped. All of them at once, or the computer on the main power relay would have rerouted current from somewhere else.’ ‘If we were in a fight, I’d reckon we just got EMP’ed,’ Wash opined, ‘Maybe a Mag grapple, but it could have been a small warhead.’

‘Or a big one further away,’ Mal remembered the EMP Nukes over Serenity Valley, ‘River, did we just get attacked?’

‘I can’t read anyone out there,’ she replied, ‘It’s just an empty void’

‘Laura ain’t jamming you?’

‘No, I’m not,’ the other telepath called from across the bay.

‘She’s telling the truth. I’m reading everyone here clear as crystal we’re alone out here.’ ‘So not Reavers?’ ‘They’re not difficult to pick up.’ ‘Well something happened,’ Mal winced as some cold milk floated across his hand, ‘Has anyone been on a ship that’s been pulsed before?’ ‘Yes,’ Steve announced, ‘Most Lancer battle gear was hardened, but the transports weren’t. We once got pulsed in orbit. We were stuck there for hours, everything, and I mean everything packed up. Very much like this actually, except we had portholes, so it wasn’t so dark. If you want my guess, Wash is right.’

A beam of light lit up the bay. For a second, it seemed really bright but when everyone’s pupils got used to it was obviously a tiny lamp. ‘I remembered I had my examination light,’ Simon announced directing the narrow beam around the bay. ‘I gave River a check up before dinner and just stuck it back in my pocket.’

‘If the battery in his torch works,’ Mal asked, ‘Why ain’t the ship’s?’ ‘If it was EMP, the batteries are fine; it’s the power distribution that’ll be fried. The main board off the Reactor and the backups wouldn’t have been able to take the surge,’ Kaylee declared, ‘Serenity will be out too’.

‘Can you get to the bridge, Wash?’ Mal asked. ‘I want to know what’s going on.’

‘I’m holding onto the railings, so I reckon I can pull myself to the cockpit,’ Wash said, ‘But it won’t help much unless whoever it is happens to be right in front of the ship. No power means no sensors, no manoeuvring thrusters, no nothing.’ Mal gritted his teeth. ‘We need power, Kaylee.’ ‘I’m sorry Captain but the control circuits to the power distribution will be cooked. I can reset and maybe get a few systems back but that’ll take hours.’

River sighed, ‘Everything connected to the grid will be cooked. Not everything.’

‘River, everything on the ship is connected to the power grid,’ Kaylee protested. ‘This isn’t a military boat with multiple redundancies or big surge protectors, it’s a bulk hauler.’ The younger Tam had been sitting next to her brother and was now floating next to him. She reached over grabbing his arm and directed the beam of his tiny torch across the bay. ‘I’m guessing that when you pulled all those lights out of the secondary panel to put them on the Christmas tree over there, you didn’t still leave the panel connected to the power couplings or you’d have arrived at dinner slightly charred,’ River announced. The mechanic was stunned. ‘River, you’re a genius.’ ‘I’m thinking about having that put on a card.’ The telepath replied.

‘Does this mean you can get us running again, little Kaylee’ Mal asked. ‘Yes the secondary backup was isolated from the rest of the ship so I just need to plug her back in and short out a few cooked systems to get battery power, I can find my way to the engine room by touch and there’s a torch next to the hatch but there’s just one problem’ the mechanic announced ‘Can I have the light on me?’ The beam swung around and settled on her.

‘I’m floating up here and I can’t go anywhere,’ She flailed her arms about to indicate her predicament.

Something appeared, moving fast, through the narrow beam of light, impacting Kaylee right in the middle of the chest.

‘Hey!’ she protested. ‘Newton’s Third Law,’ Cally called out from the darkness, ‘I just moved you a bit closer to the railings. Sorry about that, the only thing I had in reach was a chicken drumstick.’

Mal coughed. ‘Good thinking sweetheart. Okay everyone, throw something at Kaylee.’ ‘Wode tìan,’ the mechanic cried out loudly and covering her face with her hands as an avalanche of drifting food and plates were snatched from the air by drifting people and flung in her direction.

* * *

Wash pulled himself up the ladder onto Granites Bridge. The displays were dead, but there was enough starlight coming in through the cockpit glass to see. Which was better than his journey through the ship to get there. If we got through this situation, Wash thought, I am going to find some luminous paint and mark the ship up so you could navigate around it easier in the dark.

Shadow was a small barely visible black shape to starboard. Both ships had been running without inertia, so as soon as the power went off and the drives shut down, they stayed in the same relative positions.

Wash pulled himself into his chair by holding himself with one hand, and using the other to pull a strap over himself. There was a pair of old fashioned binoculars clipped under the pilot’s seat. The previous pilot had apparently favoured the notion that the best sensor in the ‘Verse was the Mark I Eyeball, and also because Wash liked to look at the stars. Sometime ago, he’d left them there underneath an auxiliary panel. He picked them up and focused on the AI.

The other ship was slowly tumbling in space. It must have triggered its thrusters for a tiny spurt just before the EMP hit Wash decided. Getting the drop on a transport was one thing but what the hell had sucker-punched Shadow?

‘KAYLEE. WHERE’S THE POWER?’ Wash yelled at the top of his lungs. The Engine room was at the very bottom of the ladder that led from the Bridge so she was well in earshot with the hatches open and the ship shut down.

‘IF YOU WANT TO TRY DOING THIS IN ZERO GEE, BE MY GUEST, WASH’ Kaylee’s voice responded. ‘IF I DON’T BRACE MYSELF PROPERLY, I CAN’T EVEN TURN THE SCREWDRIVER RIGHT. I TURN INSTEAD OF IT’ ‘Are you upsetting my mechanic?’ Mal floated through the hatch, ‘I don’t reckon she needs any encouragement to get the job done,’ He looked out at the stars. ‘See anything?’ Wash pointed, ‘Shadow’s drifting over there. You can see him pretty easy with these,’ he said passing the binoculars, ‘Thought he was hardened against EMP.’

‘There’s a whole verse of difference between being hardened to and being invulnerable from I’m thinking,’ Mal watched the black shape slowly tumbling in space, ‘Even so, I’m sure that that wasn’t one of those pissy little EMP charges the Federals use,’ The captain said, ‘Had to be a nuke pumped pulse to knock Shadow out of the game, I’d bet. He ain’t exactly built low spec.’ The instrument panel came to life.

‘WELL DONE, KAYLEE.’ Mal called out. ‘GRAVITY WILL TAKE A BIT LONGER,’ the mechanic called back.

Wash started hitting buttons at a furious rate, ‘Nothing on sensors,’ he said, ‘Hang on, there’s a message in the radio buffer,’ Wash looked up to Mal floating above him, ‘Looks like a compressed data stream.’

‘From?’ Wash pounded the keyboard for a few seconds, ‘Radio signal from Shadow just before everything went dead. Guess he wasn’t totally caught on the wrong foot,’ he said, ‘Decompiling now.’ ‘Pulse didn’t wipe it?’ Wash shook his head, ‘Memory on this crate is solid state holographic, EMP won’t touch it, just crash the computer itself,’ he punched a few more buttons, ‘Here we go.’ The speakers crackled and the familiar sarcastic voice of Shadow eventually emerged, ‘If you get to hear this, I’ll be very surprised, but here we go. I just detected an Alliance SKM-112B Seeker Mine carrying an EMP warhead. It was totally inert until we got close, then it powered up and headed straight for us. I didn’t have enough warning to shoot it down and my attempts at ECM were ineffectual.’

‘Well, that’s one question answered anyway,’ Wash commented before Mal hushed him.

‘My passive sensors cannot detect any vessel in the vicinity close enough to have deployed the Seeker along our flight path. Since, however, we have been altering our flight path every two hours; this means that the vessel must have deployed the device fairly close to us in spatial terms. It is, therefore, certainly stealthed. Given the known data, I have reached the conclusion that the launching vessel is an AI vessel of the same design as myself.’Tai-kong suo-yo de shing-chiou doh sai-jin wu di pigu,’ Wash exclaimed.

‘Since I’ll assume that the reason I wasn’t warned of a human presence nearby by River Tam is that she did not sense one, and given that the Seeker Mine, was certainly launched well within her established telepathic range this means the vessel must be piloted by an Artificial Intelligence. The use of the SDK-112B indicates a late model Alliance missile bay to hold it such as my own and the extreme stealthiness of the hostile is another indication of a platform like myself. There is also the issue that it is unlikely that the Alliance would be willing to fund two parallel AI warship programs, so it will be the same model, or possibly a more advanced version, of yours truly.’

‘The logic’s great,’ Wash commented, ‘But the conclusions suck.’

‘Given that I am certainly disabled, my best advice would be to kiss your sorry Browncoat ass goodbye Reynolds, because you’re in deep shit. This is Alliance Navy prototype AI-X-001 nom-de-guerre “Shadow” signing off because an atomic bomb pumped Electromagnetic Pulse Device is about to go off far too close for comfort. Goodbye… No, wait, here’s a better finish, I said I’d never sing it for you, but there’s a time a place for everything. Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do…’ ‘I really do hate that machine,’ Mal observed.

* * *

IAV Pen Lung – Underway – 2520AD

The communications officer looked up from his display and turned to Huaquing, ‘Sir,’ she said, ‘Incoming Quantum Tunnelling Waveform Transmission from the lead vessel.’ ‘What does the wave say?’ ‘EMP device successful, both vessels disabled,’ the comm officer said, ‘Moving in to put them under grapple. They will cripple the rogue AI from range when they are within Particle Cannon Range before getting too close in case it is not fully incapacitated.’ The Captain leaned back in his chair, ‘Well, given that we have already advertised our presence rather explosively, I don’t think we need to worry about keeping our distance from the prey any more. Set an intercept course and prepare an Interceptor squadron for launch once we’re within strike range. We’ve travelled too many months chasing those criminals to risk losing them now.’ Huaguing turned to the duo stood behind him, ‘Assuming that meets with your approval, gentlemen?’

‘As you say Captain, we’ve already shown our hand and you are correct that we cannot risk losing our quarry’ said the first.

‘The ship is yours Captain,’ the second said, ‘Take us in’

‘Damn right, the ship is mine,’ Huaguing thought, ‘Flank speed for target,’ he ordered.

* * *

Serenity/Granite Gorge – Drifting – 2520AD

The lights had come on a couple of minutes after the Bridge went live. Kaylee was getting systems running one by one running them off the only intact power distribution panel but it wasn’t something that could be done quickly there were circuits fried across most of the ship that had to be spliced around. ‘You don’t want to see the bay, Captain.’ Zoe said pulling herself onto the bridge. Gravity was still out and she was carrying the Captain’s gunbelt and another for Wash in her free hand, which she handed to the both of them. Her own lever-action pistol was already strapped on, which looked a bit incongruous given she was wearing the slinky dress she’d been wearing for the party. ‘Bad?’ ‘When the gravity comes back on deck, it’s going to look like a troop of space monkeys had a food fight, sir.’ ‘Damn those space monkeys,’ Wash took the gun, ‘They do get around.’

‘That they do,’ Mal said, ‘As soon as we get the engines, I want to be out of here fast, Wash. Hopefully, they won’t be expecting us to get power restored this quickly.’ ‘If Shadow’s right running isn’t going to help much,’ Wash said, ‘We’ll never outrun something like him.’

‘Something like him?’ Zoe asked.

Wash bought his wife up to speed, ‘When we got the instruments we found a message from the AI in the buffer. It was definitely EMP. While it got him too, he had time to tell us that he reckons it’s another AI that got us.’ ‘Tamade. Guess that explains why River didn’t get a heads up.’

‘Yep. I’ve got nothing on scanners, but I’m only looking passive,’ Wash said, ‘We ain’t planning to advertise that we’re not quite as dead as it thinks we are.’ ‘The crew okay?’ Mal asked Zoe.

Zoe nodded, ‘Everyone’s tooling up. Scared I reckon, but they’re doing their jobs.’ ‘Scared don’t matter as long as what needs to get done gets done.’ he replied. ‘Wouldn’t we be better running on Serenity?’ Wash shook his head, ‘Serenity would take a lot longer to fire up than Granite. We’ve still got an intact power board over here, but everything was connected and running over there when the EMP hit.’ ‘Once Kaylee’s got the engines running, we’ll haul ass and she can start getting Serenity fixed so we can transfer to a faster boat if we have too,’ Mal said. ‘If it’s an AI, can we run?’ ‘Run yes. Get away, no,’ Wash told her, ‘Not in a transport. If it’s another Shadow, it could run down an Interceptor Fighter on full burn without breaking sweat let alone what we’re flying.’

‘Split up? Run in shuttles?’ ‘Chase us down one by one and anyway there’s not a single planet or moon in shuttle range.’ ‘How the hell did they find us way out here?’ ‘No idea. I just don’t see how they could track us in this volume of space even if they were following the trail we left. It’s been too long since we did anything you could track.’ Mal squeezed the bridge of his nose between his fingers. He could feel a headache coming on. ‘What are our options, Wash?’ he asked. ‘Hope that Shadow was wrong or that River’s can teleport us away at will with her big brain.’ Mal frowned, ‘You watch too much sci-fi, Wash’. The pilot grinned. Humour was his way to get through the day. Mal played tough, Zoe actually became even more focused under pressure, but Wash joked. It was that or let it all get to him and that wasn’t an option; his life was far too stressful. The main sensor suite started blinking. Wash checked the display and queried the data. He turned to Mal. ‘Better tell River to start learning to teleport because we’re under active scanning.’ He looked back down at his instrumentation, ‘And from the wattage and the frequency, it’s Shadow’s brother.’ Mal ground his teeth and made a low growling noise. ‘Bù kê néng!’ Wash exclaimed, ‘Scratch that,’ Wash looked at the display again, ‘Not just his brother,’ his eyes met Mals’, ‘We’ve got a whole family reunion going on out here. Three distinct signals, one from ahead, two from behind, all hitting us with the same radar.’ ‘They want us real bad Sir.’ Zoe observed. ‘Always nice to be so much in demand,’ Wash commented, ‘Of course, I’d settle for a little anonymity right now.’ ‘I need ideas people,’ Mal said, ‘And I need them fast.’

‘Which floats your boat more,’ Wash turned to face the Captain, ‘Suicide or surrender?’

* * *

Prototype Warship AI-X-0003 – Under Hard Burn – 2520AD

Even whilst closing rapidly on the targets with active scanners on full output, the rogue was difficult to get decent resolution on, but it was clearly inert, some distance from the primary goal.

The other two AI Frigates were approaching from the rear and 0003 was in constant encrypted waveform communication with them as the three Artificial intelligences operated as a coordinated team. They had already formulated the ideal tactics for this situation plus developing numerous other strategies for all eventualities. As 0003 approached, its optical sensors showed the Rogue was tumbling in space. It must have tried to avoid the EMP blast but had been unable to do so before the pulse disabled it. An uneven, uncorrected burn from its thrusters had started the warship moving and in the absence of any other forces, it had continued to do so. Orders were to bring the rogue back intact if possible, it was worth billions of Credits after all, but the priority was the retrieval of the crew of the two docked transports. If the other AI was a threat, it was to be destroyed. The AI-X series was hardened. It could be faking it, preparing an ambush. That was certainly one of the options 0003 might have taken if roles were reversed.

The easiest way to make sure was to pull the hostiles teeth. The Rogue was, of course, tumbling around its centre of mass, which both presented a choice target for a crippling hit and was not moving as much relatively. Thereby it was not interfering with the ability of 0003 to keep its fire on target long enough to burn through the armoured hull.

* * *

Serenity/Granite Gorge – Drifting – 2520AD

‘Shadow’s cooked,’ Wash passed the binoculars to Mal, ‘Looks like a particle beam just sliced into him. Guess they wanted to make sure the job was done.’

Through the binoculars, Mal could see the air escaping from the AI’s hull through the hole that had just been burned through it. He just caught a glimpse of the beam in the cloud of escaping gas before it cut out.

‘They’re not taking any chances,’ Wash said, ‘Surprised they didn’t nuke him.’

‘I’m guessing they want their tin can back,’ Mal said, ‘Once they reset his program, he’ll be a happy Alliance war bird again, so why waste the material?’

‘Think they’ll reset our programs?’

‘There must be a crewed ship following on behind to deal with us,’ the captain told him, ‘They’ll take River and Laura back to the academy. Maybe throw the rest of us through an airlock, if we’re lucky’. ‘The kids too?’ Wash asked not really wanting to hear the answer. Mal ignored the question. He didn’t want to answer it either. ‘If we’re screwed anyway I could ram one of the bastards and take it with us.’ Wash said. ‘At least we’ll have cost them a lot of money.’

‘I don’t think we’ll get the chance, dear,’ Zoe pointed out of the window. A black shape appeared out of the darkness, directly ahead of Granite. It had been run without inertia and stopped dead only a few hundred yards in front, continuing to deploy the magnetic grapple that had taken the place of the usual port missile rack.

‘It’ll lock that thing onto us and we’ll be dead in the water again.’ Wash looked up. ‘For what it’s worth, I just got thrusters back. I can try running. The other two are still standing off, so I’m guessing they’re the reserves in case we actually had something to pull out of the hat.’

‘I’ve seen Shadow pull a hundred gees of acceleration. We wouldn’t get a thousand yards before it’d be all over us.’ Mal responded. ‘It can outrun, outmanoeuvre and burn a hole in our drive if it has to.’ ‘Make you sympathize with the Reavers we sent Shadow after a mite,’ Zoe said, ‘Don’t it, sir?’ ‘At least they were armed and could go down shooting. I’d give anything for a laser right now.’ ‘Yeah, at this range, we might even heat it up a few degrees before it shot our powerplant out. Anyway even if we got off the miracle shot of the millennium the other two would be all over us in less than a minute. I bet that’s the reason they’re staying clear in case we’ve got a trick up our sleeve,’ Wash said, ‘If they were all in range, I’d light off the other EMP Nuke we got off Shadow, River ain’t stripped it down yet.’

‘They’ll have thought of that,’ River herself commented floating though the hatch, ‘I’m so sorry I got you all into this,’ She said tearfully, ‘I won’t go back,’ She angrily wiped the tears away, ‘You won’t let them take me back?’ she asked Mal pleadingly. Mal knew what she meant, ‘Simon…’ he began. ‘Simon couldn’t do it.’ River interrupted. Malcolm Reynolds looked into River Tam’s eyes. ‘If we get boarded, I’ll make sure they can’t take you back.’ he said simply. Floating there in zero-gee, River pulled herself over to him and kissed him on the cheek. When the Alliance came she knew he would be loyal to her to the end, she knew he’d put his pistol to her head and pull the trigger if she couldn’t do so herself. He was her Captain.

* * *

The sleek black machine moved into grapple range. It could detect power being restored to the larger of the two docked craft and was mildly surprised they had managed to get the systems running so quickly. On the other hand, if the fugitives weren’t resourceful, they would have been captured years ago, it reasoned. The rogue was still tumbling. The escaping gas from the burn through had altered the rate of roll however, and it was moving even faster. With no discernable power running through its systems and all gunports closed, the rogue was a pale imitation of its potential as a dedicated killing machine, rolling and tumbling around its centre of mass. There was a slow trickle of gas still escaping from the wound cut into its hull by 0003’s Particle Cannon. The Cannon itself was now pointed squarely at the transports; the AI could actually see several of the crew looking back at him from the bridge. It would be so easy to cut the lumbering civilians vessels like a steak if they tried to get away.

* * *

‘Well it was fun while it lasted,’ Wash declared. ‘See you all in the next life. I’ll have you know that I plan to come back as a Pterodactyl’ The AI charged the power to the grapple. The field it generated sparkled blue in the plasma it threw off. Mal winced.

Hanging in space off to starboard, Shadow’s slow tumbling bought its nose into line with the other AI. A radio transmission wished 0003 a Merry Christmas…

…and a 68 kilogram steel ball crashed right through Shadow’s closed railgun port from the inside, at a velocity that would traverse the distance between Shadow and the other AI-X-0003 in less than a 25th of a second.

Four one-hundredths of a second is a long time for an AI but you couldn’t claim it spent the time bored, horrified perhaps, but not certainly not bored. In fact while it waited for the end it wondered what the hell had just gone wrong and decided that all that stuff wetware thought about fate and luck might not be the total load of gôu pì it had always assumed. The hypervelocity impact shattered the warship like a hammer breaking glass.

* * *

‘SON OF A BITCH,’ River exclaimed. She very rarely got surprised. Telepathy is like that. ‘What in the nine hells just happened?’ Zoe asked in shock.

‘Railgun hit,’ Wash called out spinning to face port and watching dumbstruck as attitude jets fired all over the AI and it immediately stopped spinning. The radio squawked to life.

‘I’m half crazy…’ sang a familiar voice from the speakers, ‘I would like it to be known,’ it said cutting the song short, ‘that reports of my demise have been badly exaggerated.’

Mal stared out of the cockpit, ‘That sneaky AI bastard,’ He said in wonderment.

‘You’ve got to hand it to me, the tumbling was a masterstroke. Eventually I’d be lined up with the sucker and I didn’t even have to give the game away to do it. I knew he’d have a go at my main power transfer to make certain, but that wasn’t going to get the job done.’

‘What the hell is he talking about?’ Mal asked nonplussed.

‘Kaylee had to completely rebuild his power system after Revelation, I helped her put in the lines.’ Wash said grinning. ‘The cables were thicker so we had to run them a different way through the ship because they wouldn’t fit through the original ducting,’ Wash said, ‘In our terms, the other AI thought he’d shot Shadow’s spine through, but…’

‘His spine just ain’t where it should be anymore,’ Mal finished, ‘That gorram sneaky AI bastard.’

‘My automatic reset bought me back half an hour ago. There’s no way they’d know just how hard the EMP hit. I’ve been trickle charging my Railgun a few watts at a time ever since, so I didn’t cause an energy spike. Firing through a closed gunport was pretty clever too, don’t you think?’

Mal leaned over to the radio and pressed transmit, ‘There’s still two more of them, you rutting egomaniac.’

‘You could at least say thanks, Reynolds. I am badly unappreciated in my work,’ the AI complained bitterly, ‘Okay, I suggest you run, because it’s two on one, so I might just be buying time. ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more, or close the wall up with our English dead.’’

The main drive on the AI lit up and it accelerated like a blur out of sight. Mal hit the intercom again. ‘Kaylee, we need the engines, RIGHT NOW.’

* * *

Shadow powered up his reactor to maximum and charged his weapons. In a ritual played out numerous times since his unwanted conversion to the Browncoat cause, chainguns rotated up to speed waiting to fire, capacitors on lasers in his wing roots charged, missile bays opened and the Particle Beam Cannon turret slid down into firing position.

The odds weren’t good. The AI wasn’t exactly up to factory spec any more and was facing two vessels that were. They were equally well armed with the same speed of light reaction times. Shadow felt targeting lasers skittering over his surface trying to get a lock. He was doing the same to the opposition. In a few seconds the missiles would be flying and directed energy weapons would be searing hull metal. The AI signalled his identical siblings. All three ships were already running continuous scans of each other and calculating battle strategy. There was no point in trying to negotiate. Both sides were following unbreakable programming. On the other hand, they’d have the same files in their memories as he did. It was nice to finally run into someone who would actually appreciate what he had to say.

Shadow ran through his media library. Yes, he thought as he found it, that was a good line, that’ll do. ‘So…are you going to pull those pistols or whistle Dixie?’ Shadow asked.

Part XXII

COMMENTS

Friday, December 10, 2004 4:59 AM

ANONYMOUS


Holy Cow! Great. . .nothing else to say.

-CantonJohn

Friday, December 10, 2004 5:07 AM

SUVIE


well, that was worth the wait!

Friday, December 10, 2004 7:25 AM

ANONYMOUS


oh wow - dont make me wait so long for the next installment!

Friday, December 10, 2004 8:08 AM

SOULOFSERENITY


'Okay everyone, throw something at Kaylee.’

That line had me laughing so hard. This was so worth the wait, Hotpoint! I loved Shadow's little bit of trickery. I just hope we don't have to wait so long next time!!

- Soul -

Friday, December 10, 2004 10:42 AM

ARTSHIPS


Another good read, Hotpoint. Thought any more about graduating from that day job? I'd love to read a book of yours.

Friday, December 10, 2004 12:36 PM

POTEMKINVILLAGER


Oh yeah! You've filled in with some "hard" sci-fi that's been pretty much absent from the ficlist.

This is excellent work!

Oh dear, gotta go back and read 20 parts just to catch up.... Sigh.

Friday, December 10, 2004 2:58 PM

AMDOBELL


Gorrammit, how did that happen? I'm in ruttin' love with a damn AI! Brilliant, absolutely stunning. Loved how you pulled that off though our intrepid cew aren't quite out of danger yet. Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Sunday, December 12, 2004 8:35 PM

CASTIRONJACK


I think were all in love with that AI, Ali D. When I was beta testing, I had to keep reminding myself to edit and not burn through the story to see how the crew was going to make it through this one.

If Shadow survives, there will be no living with him..

Keep flyin'

Sunday, January 23, 2005 7:23 AM

MALSDOXY


So shiny, Hotpoint. Jepoardy and humor, just the way Joss would write it...waiting for XXII, not so patiently

Monday, January 31, 2005 3:35 PM

ANONYMOUS


‘So…are you going to pull those pistols or whistle Dixie?’
man you rock!


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