BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

HOTPOINT

Horse, Foot and Artillery (Part IV)
Wednesday, June 8, 2005

Shadow finds a way to motivate his captors, River plays games and Book's past catches up with him


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 4937    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.

* * *

‘Black rain, Thor’s Hammer, Steel Hail, there were plenty of euphemisms for Kinetic Energy weapons bombardments, I always liked “Rods from the Gods” myself, but when you came right down to it, it was just some son-of-a-bitch clubbing you over the head with big lumps of metal dropped from orbit. If you’re going to fight a ground war you need orbital superiority, or at the very least you need to be able to stop them from getting it. Never give up the high ground.’

Excerpt from “Death or Glory Girl” by Captain Claire Hart. Hera Press 2530AD

* * *

INS Charybdis – Underway – 2521AD

‘What the hell is going on’ Mal yelled over the sirens.

Zoe observed the Navy crewmen who had been in the ships rec-room watching an old movie the Serenity crew had bought with them, sprinting out of the room, ‘Action stations I’d think.’

‘Reavers?’ Inara asked concerned.

Mal turned to her. ‘Attacking this rutting great thing in a couple of worn out transports, or a couple of dozen worn out transports?’ he said. ‘Even they ain’t that crazy.’

‘Alliance maybe?’

‘If it is then they’re in for a bad day I’m thinking’ Mal replied as the sirens stopped.

The lights started flickering madly and folk music started to play from the ships internal speaker system.

‘Now what the hell is going on?’ Mal asked rhetorically.

A crewman tore into the room out of breath. ‘Captain Deckers complements Sir’ she gasped at Mal. She had clearly just been running flat out for quite a distance. ‘The Captain requests your presence on the Bridge immediately.’

‘What gives?’ Mal asked her standing up. ‘Why didn’t he just call me on the intercom?’

The crewman looked at Mal. ‘One of the engineers really rutted something up’ she said simply and started running back whence she’d came with Mal in hot pursuit. The bridge was buried deep in the ship where a warship should be run from and it was a decent run at high speed. Mal was actually better at distance as a rule but he’d only had to do it once unlike his guide and he kept up with the Naval Crewman, pounding down the corridors with his customary Browncoat trailing, until they reached the bridge.

‘You wanted me Sir?’ Mal asked the ships Captain as he entered the bridge passing a Marine guard on the door.

Captain Decker did not look like a happy man. Fortunately the Admiral was off visiting one of the Corvettes escorting the battlecruiser or he’d have been a really unhappy man. ‘That damn AI of yours is still coded to do what you tell it right?’ he asked.

Mal nodded confused.

‘Then tell it to get the hell out of my ships computers’ Decker snarled pointing to the front of the bridge where the holographic projector would normally be displaying local space in 3D.

Mals eyes widened. Projected in the hologram was a perfect three-dimension image of the AI warship.

A voice boomed from the ships intercom. ‘Put me back together or the ship gets it’ it said loudly.

‘Qingwa cào de liúmáng’ Mal swore. ‘What the hell happened?’

Decker directed his glare at the senior engineering officer who decided that the far bulkhead looked absolutely fascinating just right that second. ‘Apparently one of my people’ Decker began, making it clear from his voice he meant “my people” in the loosest possible sense ‘was trying to hack the AI core of that warship you so kindly provided to us’ he said. ‘The problem he found was that his hand-held console just wasn’t up to the job of cracking some of the security codes so he decided to use Charybdis’s central computer to do it instead and connected the AI straight to it.’

Mal closed his eyes, bowed his head and raised his hands to cover his face. It didn’t take River to work this one out.

‘Well we still couldn’t crack the damn codes but that rutting AI immediately hacked out in the other direction and cracked ours.’ Decker said spitting the words out through a mask of rage.

Tiānna’ Mal mumbled through his fingers.

‘It went through our firewall like a knife through butter’ the senior engineer said dejectedly. ‘By the time we realised what was going on it was too late, it had rewritten millions of lines of code.’

‘Couldn’t you pull the plug or something?’ Mal asked.

The engineer shook his head. ‘We could but it would take us days if not weeks or longer to get the damn computers running again. Everything that’s been rewritten has been quantum encrypted and I wouldn’t even know where to start on some of the code’ the engineer stated despondently. ‘The only thing that could clear up the mess is the damn AI.’

Mal looked up and put his hands behind his back. ‘Shadow’ he said sternly. ‘Can you hear me?’

Yup’ a voice from the speakers confirmed.

‘Shadow I order you to knock off this crap and give this crew their ship back.’

No.’

‘You have to obey me’ Mal stated sternly. ‘Kaylee coded that into you.’

Not quite true mon Capitan. The overriding directive which was given me requires me to protect you and the rest of your rabble and since I can’t do that if I’m disassembled I’m actually obeying orders’ Shadow replied. ‘You could have just switched me off before when you initially started taking me apart so I didn’t resist too strongly because it was a zero-sum-game to do so, but I’ve got a much better hand now’ the machine continued. ‘For the record by the way, never try to hack an AI unless you’ve got another AI. Wetware’s too slow and a non-sentient machine’s too damn stupid.

‘There must be some way to get rid of this thing?’ Decker moaned.

Ask your computer geeks how many moves ahead I can plan. You’re way out of your league Decker, anything you can come up with I worked out a way to counter while that dumbass Browncoat software-monkey was still trying to hack me’ Shadow declared. ‘Tell you what, put me back together and I’ll even let you paint a couple of those god-awful Independent Roundels on me. I’ll call you “Sir” and everything… I won’t actually mean it but I’ll say it.

Mal winced and turned to Decker. ‘You know it is really worth having the rutting thing around’ he said. ‘You’re better off having the son-of-a-bitch inside pissing out than outside pissing in.’

Hey I’m a reasonable guy’ Shadow said. ‘I’ll give you a couple more weeks to check me over but if you don’t start putting me back in one piece by the time we reach your base of operations you’ll be spending a very long time debugging code’ he continued. ‘Oh and by the way I write a really mean virus which will have infected just about every system onboard by now. So tell the crew in the flight bay setting up the EMP generator to knock it off unless they want to get out and push this thing home.

Decker produced a sound through gritted teeth which was most reminiscent of a cornered animal and directed his glare back towards the engineer.

When you’ve got them by the balls their hearts and minds soon follow’ Shadow said happily.

* * *

Fort Obsidian – Beyond the Outer Rim – 2521AD

‘Yes it’s exactly the same colour as the ships. How much grey paint could they have possibly bought with them out here?’ Inara asked rhetorically as she stepped out from the airlock into the main dome. It was actually very much like every other domed colony you’d ever see, excepting of course the ring of directed energy air defence installations and Surface to Orbit Missile silos that they’d flown over to get to the landing pad.

Even with most of the buildings painted grey you could still see why they’d called it Fort Obsidian. The colony was built on an extinct volcano, which everyone in the party hoped was very extinct, with the dome thrown over the caldera and the naval engineers who’d built the place had made much use of the incredibly hard local rock as a building material. One very impressive feature just as you stepped out of the airlock was a large block of polished jet black stone with words carved into the surface. It was a list of names, the crew who had died since the exodus, the date they died and the reason. Most seemed to be accidents, it was inevitable in space to lose a few people given the utter harshness of the environment, but a large number were attributed to Reavers.

Mal had been the first to get to the stone and he scanned the list of names before bowing his head. He didn’t do prayer anymore but respect was something he still took seriously. The gesture was not lost on the others who did likewise, Jayne thought it was a bit stupid but everyone else was doing it so he did too.

It was a bleak moon with a thin atmosphere orbiting a small gas giant (small of course being relative when you’re talking about gas giants) but there were asteroids to be mined nearby (also a relative term in space) and so the exiles had made it home. Like much of the Independent Navy a high percentage of the various crews had actually originated from the various mining concerns scattered around the rim and with the warships to carve up and haul material and the factory ships to process it they had no shortage of resources. Food had been a problem at first but the moon had water and not the worst soil imaginable and the fleet had a few good scientists and plenty of practically minded engineers. Throw in the occasional surreptitious supply raid back towards the Alliance disguised as Reavers and they’d managed in the end.

It was probably best not to ask how some of the stuff was made though because the fleet’s cadre of former genetic-engineers and biochemists turned naval crew might tell you. Suffice to say the “pork” had never been within several hundred AU of a pig.

When Charybdis had arrived back home it had taken up station next to its sister ship Scylla and two other vessels that were nearly as large as the twin battlecruisers in geosynchronous orbit over the colony site. The two factory ships had been originally constructed so that the fleet could be maintained away from prying eyes but when van der Heijden and his people decamped from the colonised worlds they’d taken the factories with them for obvious reasons. Both manufacturing vessels were obviously just cobbled together in a hurry and would certainly win no admiring glances for their less than sleek lines but they produced the spare parts needed to keep the other ships running and that made them invaluable. A steady flow of modified shuttles and corvettes moved back and forth from the asteroid mines bringing raw material for the factories. Other ships had been modified to “mine” the gas giant too, diving into its atmosphere to scoop up valuable chemicals including of course the hydrogen and isotopes needed to fuel the ships.

‘Quite an operation you’ve got here’ Mal had told the Admiral as they dropped down from orbit in one of the battlecruisers shuttles.

‘Took ten years and a lot of hard work and sacrifice’ the Admiral had replied.

Mal looked up and turned away from the monument. The man had been right about sacrifice.

Most of the complex was underground, tunnelling is easy if you’ve got access to high wattage laser cannon and a fusion reactor but above ground the colony looked much like a town. As they continued to walk onwards guided by a Naval Lieutenant they passed a large barracks with another block of black obsidian set above the doorway. On the stone was the emblem of the Independent Marine Corps surrounded by their motto “Per Astra per Terram - Semper Fidelis”. “By Star by Land - Always Faithful” River translated.

Mal was more struck by the sight directly across from the barracks. Set in the middle of what appeared to be a gravelled Parade Ground was a large pole with something flying from it he hadn’t ever thought to see again, a huge Independent flag fluttering gently in the air currents from the atmosphere recyclers, a flag that had never surrendered flying over a world where the Alliance had never ruled.

‘Are you planning to stand there getting all misty-eyed all gorram day?’ Jayne asked eventually ‘cause I’m hoping to find a bar.’

* * *

‘It seemed like a good way to convince them’ Mal said quietly ‘but if she’s wins again they’re going to start thinking they can take Shinon or something.’

Steve was still watching intently. ‘Wouldn’t work, she can do some amazing things but being in two places at once isn’t one of them’ he said seriously. ‘The Alliance can raise sufficient forces to both defend themselves and mount a counter-offensive. That’s how the Romans won the Second Punic War, they decided they couldn’t defeat Hannibal in the field but if he was marching up and down Italy he couldn’t be back in Carthage defending his own turf so they sent an Army there instead.’

‘So how does she plan to win?’

Steve smiled. ‘She says she doesn’t have to win. She only has to know her own strengths, work against their weaknesses… and play for a draw.’

Mal turned back to watching the screens on the mess hall wall along with a crowd of interested onlookers where River was naval wargaming against Admiral van der Heijden and his senior staff. She was in one room with a computer console directing her virtual fleet and her opponents were next door. Again so far despite now starting the game facing totally overwhelming numbers she was giving them, as Jayne phrased it, another serious ass-whupping. If you know exactly what the other person is going to do it is very difficult to lose the initiative and River was smart as hell into the bargain. In the first simulated engagement she’d wiped out half the enemy fleet by just dumping a transport ships load worth of Seeker Mines at the enemies planned rendezvous point and waiting for them to arrive. Space is too big to lay minefields, the volume that would need to be mined to stand a hope in hell of achieving anything is literally astronomical (as would be the cost of all the required mines) so it’s just not a valid tactic, unless you’re infinitely lucky, or telepathic.

‘They could have proved the point by playing chess with her instead of setting up all of this’ Simon pointed out.’

‘My Colonel used to say that wargaming was chess with a thousand pieces’ Steve replied. ‘And anyway I won my last chess game against River’ he said smugly.

‘As I recall River had promised not to read your mind and you got Laura to verify she wasn’t cheating then you went ahead and cheated your own self.’

Steve grinned. ‘You’ve got to admit it was creative’ he replied.

‘Patching the AI through to a CCTV camera directed at the board and then having it tell you what moves to play through a hidden earpiece goes beyond creative. It’s positively despicable’ Simon observed.

‘It was worth it just to see the expression on your sister’s face when she started losing piece after piece. She’s just not used to losing, she was getting quite petulant about it too’ Steve said chuckling. ‘She may have a genius level IQ but the ability to think a few hundred moves ahead in a fraction of a second goes a little bit beyond her abilities.’

‘Hey did you ever play Rock, Paper Scissors as a kid?’ Wash asked.

Everyone turned to him. ‘That’s pretty random Wash.’ Zoe told her Husband.

Wash shook his head. ‘No think about it’ he said. ‘Rock blunts scissors, but scissors cuts paper and paper wraps around Rock’ he said looking around. ‘River beats numbers’ he said pointing to the screen, ‘but overwhelming numbers could beat Shadow while Shadow can beat River.’

Mal took a breath to say something then paused. Eventually he looked quizzically at Wash ‘That is either one of the dumbest or the cleverest things I’ve ever heard, I just can’t figure out which’ he said eventually.

* * *

‘Apparently it’s the social event of the season’ Inara told her beau eyes twinkling. ‘You look as handsome as ever I’m glad to say.’

Mal threw her a look. ‘It’s an Officers Ball’ he said. ‘It’s not exactly the sort of affair I’m comfortable with.’

Inara wagged her finger at him. ‘Stop thinking like Sergeant Mal Reynolds of the Seventh Infantry Brigade and start thinking like Captain Malcolm Reynolds of the Civilian Transport Vessel Serenity’ she said. ‘I’ve seen you socialise at society functions before and you didn’t even provoke duels to the death at several of them’ she continued with the trace of a smile forming. ‘I’ve seen you act positively superior and condescending to Officers before in any case.’

Alliance Officers’ Mal told her flatly. ‘This is a bit different.’

‘So are you two nearly ready?’ Jennifer asked sticking her head around the open door ‘Why Inara as you’re a vision’ she continued.

‘Thank you Jennifer’ Inara replied warmly. ‘Is the dress alright?’

Jennifer stepped into the shuttle wearing one of borrowed ball dresses. ‘It required a few alterations in places but I hope it turned out alright’ she replied.

Inara clasped her hands together. ‘You look radiant My Dear’ she gushed. ‘How did Steven get on?’

A voice from outside the shuttle broke into the conversation. ‘Do you know how difficult it was to find a Marine my size with a spare jacket?’ he complained bitterly. ‘They’re all two metres tall and built like a cargo transport.’

‘Spare Jacket?’ Mal asked curiously as a familiar figure in an unfamiliar costume stepped in behind Jennifer.

‘Oh right that settles it I’m not going’ Mal announced loudly. ‘It’s a gorram Officers convention.’

Steven was wearing a borrowed Marine formal jacket with his Army Captains Bars on the collar and the Marine Corp insignia on the right arm removed and replaced with an Army one he’d somehow managed to find. There were a smattering of Aerospace pilots who’d come from the Army Air Corps originally so Mal assumed the Lancer had maybe traded something for the patch from their flightsuit. The Death or Glory regimental badge from his beret was pinned to the jacket too, just over his heart Mal noted.

‘Playing jarhead are we?’ Mal asked.

Steve smiled. ‘You know at first the Cavalry Regiments used to wear these waist length jackets too because those full length coats are just as inconvenient in a tank as they are on a spaceship. Eventually the supplies dried up so new recruits didn’t get issued them so we all ended up just wearing the jumpsuits for the sake of uniformity but this isn’t the first time I’ve dressed like this.’

A light of recognition went on in Mal’s eyes. ‘So that’s why you sometimes say Brownjackets not Browncoats.’

Steve nodded. ‘Yes because when I first joined the Lancers that’s what we called ourselves. Same colour different branch of the service.’ He frowned ‘Do you mean you never knew that?’ he asked. ‘Did you think I was stupid or something?’

‘You’re an Officer.’ Mal replied simply.

Steve narrowed his eyes. ‘That’s a “yes” isn’t it?’ he asked.

‘If you expect an answer to that you must think I’m stupid as well’ Mal told him.

Someone knocked at the airlock. ‘So this is where you all are? We were wondering?’

Everyone turned and gaped at Wash as he stepped in.

‘What?’ he asked confused.

Mal shook his head. ‘You own a respectable suit’ he said eventually. ‘I didn’t think you owned a single piece of clothing that wasn’t covered in pockets or could sear someone’s eyeballs out at five-hundred yards.’

‘I’ll have you know I’m a social chameleon’ Wash responded feigning hurt ‘You can take me anywhere.’

‘And he always comes back’ Zoe interrupted, appearing behind her husband ‘because no one else wants to keep him’ she continued.

Wash looked at his wife then around the room. ‘Why are you all picking on me?’ he asked.

‘Cause Jayne ain’t coming’ Mal replied.

Wash put on a thoughtful look. ‘Okay that’s fair’ he conceded.

* * *

‘I think Kaylee will stand out’ Inara observed nodded at the mechanic being escorted by Simon walking ahead at the front of the group as they made their way to the colonies main complex. They were getting even more looks than normal from the various military personnel who were heading from one place to another. The fact that the female representatives of Serenity’s crew were wearing the only formal dresses for several months hard burn in any direction did make them stand out more than a little although Kaylee’s rarely worn ball dress tended to draw the eye in any environment.

‘Where’s River?’ Book asked.

‘She’s meeting us there. She had to go and deal with Laura’ Zoe told him. ‘She’s being “obstinate” I think was the word River used.’

Book nodded. ‘That does appear to be a frequent comment made of the young lady’ he said sadly. ‘Still I hope River is there when we arrive.’

‘How come so important Shepherd?’ Zoe enquired.

Book smiled. ‘I’d rather not arrive as the only male without an escort… it might be unseemly’ he admitted.

Wash started to chuckle. ‘Yes because middle-aged clergymen arriving at social functions with attractive young women is just the thing to stop tongues wagging’ he joked. ‘Anyway it looks like you’re alright because I can see her standing by the door.’

‘Her and a bunch of armed Marines’ Zoe pointed out. ‘They ain’t going to make us walk in between two lines of troops are they.’

Mal’s expression changed. ‘They don’t look like they’re here for that.’

River ran over to the group. ‘I’m sorry they only just found out and I couldn’t give you any warning’ she said in a very concerned tone. ‘I’m sorry Captain’ she said apologetically then turned to another figure. ‘I’m so sorry Shepherd’ she said sadly.

A figure appeared with the Marines and marched over flanked by the platoon on Marines all cradling weapons. Mal’s gunhand twitched but his pistol was locked up in a box not on his hip. The leader of the group was the ranking Marine Officer Colonel Taylor and despite his formal dress he looked more than business like.

‘What’s going on’ Mal asked loudly. ‘Party cancelled?’ he asked.

‘This is none of your concern Captain Reynolds’ the Colonel responded. ‘We are willing to accept you knew nothing about the identity of one of your crew’.

‘What the hell is going on?’ Mal demanded to know.

River stepped between Mal and the Colonel facing her Captain ‘They recovered a datacore from the Alliance Cruiser. It was flown here by a Corvette to be decrypted and they just got the results’ River announced. ‘It had the personnel files on most of the Alliance Military’ she said. ‘The retired ones too’ she continued turning to look sadly at Book.

Mal turned his head to Book who didn’t return his gaze and then back to the Colonel. ‘I’ve thought for a good while the Shepherd was ex Alliance, and military too, but he’s never done nothing to harm me or mine and I reckon he’s a good man so I’ll vouch for him’ he said with certainty of purpose. ‘Just because he was on the other side ten years back don’t necessarily mean he still is and he’s had plenty of opportunity to do me wrong and ain’t’ Mal continued turning to look at Book again who was staring at the ground expressionless. ‘But I guess you’ve got to do what you think’s right’ he told the Marine.

‘We should all do what we think is right’ Book replied looking up. ‘Going against that for the sake of expediency is what led to seeking penance this last decade’ he said quietly. ‘I knew eventually my past would come back to haunt me.’

‘I’ve always known’ River said. ‘But I swear that he’s never thought of selling us out and he’s a good man at heart. You’ve got to believe me’ she pleaded to the Marine Officer.

Colonel Taylor looked at River then cast his eyes over the group. ‘You have my word as an officer and a gentleman that we will not harm this man but you had better be aware that any attempt to prevent us taking him into custody will result in you sharing a cell next to him.’

Mal raised his hands palms outwards. ‘None of us will try to stop you’ he said looking around at the expressions of his people. Kaylee looked the most upset of all.

Taylor nodded. ‘I’m glad to hear it’ he said and turned to Book. ‘If you promise not to try to escape I’ll forgo the handcuffs Sir’ he said.

Mal looked at Book. “Sir”? he thought.

The Shepherd threw Taylor a weak smile. ‘Thank you Colonel’ he said.

The Marine Officer drew himself to attention. ‘General Richard Wilkins’ he began. ‘I formally take you as a Prisoner of War and advise you that you will be held until eventual cessation of hostilities. You will be treated according to your rank but if you attempt to flee you will be shot.’

Book’s weak smile broadened into a grin. ‘Hostilities ceased many years ago or did that escape you way out here’ he told the Colonel ‘You’re on dodgy legal ground son even ignoring the fact I’m a civilian now.’

Taylor sighed. ‘Don’t make me get the handcuffs General’ he said flatly.

Part V

COMMENTS

Wednesday, June 8, 2005 9:47 AM

NUTLUCK


Very cool and as always a nice story. Not surprised about Book. Wasn;t sure what he was but figured it would bite him on the ass here. Pity we didn't get to see the crew enjoy themselves at the party and maybe River getting to dance with someone other than the crew for a change.

Wednesday, June 8, 2005 11:33 AM

ARTSHIPS


Too bad about Book. But very shiny how you explained the brownjacket thing. And I like how you avoid the obvious cut-to-the-war plot and flesh-out the rest of the story. Thanks!

Wednesday, June 8, 2005 12:40 PM

AMDOBELL


Very good but I have to wonder why they want to arrest Book now after all these years? What else did he get up to apart from the obvious? Good myth, Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Thursday, June 9, 2005 3:54 AM

KENAN82


SHINY!!! I always knew Book was too "well-prepared" for the cover story.
This reminds me of the Japanese soldiers who hid out on an island, for the latter years of WWII until the mid 50's. They had no idea the war had ended, and were continuing their mission in the absence of further orders.

Thursday, June 9, 2005 7:52 AM

SOULOFSERENITY


Ooh, Book is General Wilkins! Nice twist there, Hotpoint! I'm looking forward to more!

- Soul


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