BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

HOTPOINT

Wolf Pack (Part VII)
Saturday, February 7, 2004

What happens when you become too confident in your early warning system and it fails?


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 4137    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

* * *

Serenity/Granite Gorge – Deep Space – 2520AD

Mal returned to the bridge River in tow ‘Zoe’s handing out weaponry. Jayne thinks it’s Reavers like always’ the Captain said.

‘I don’t think so unless they’ve taken to following folks around for months on end’ Wash replied.

‘Months?’

Wash nodded. I checked Serenity’s computer logs and I found random radar anomalies stretching right back to when we left Toulouse. Maybe we stayed there too long’

‘Why did you never spot it before?’

‘A Trance’s Radar is slightly better than a Firefly’s in raw power output but they would know that and would back off a bit more to counter it. What it wouldn’t know is that the only real upgrade the Raiders ever made was to the software drivers running the computer on this thing. The actual radar signal is exactly the same but how the ship interprets the data that bounces back is different. When it comes right down to it thanks to the better drivers we’re spotting our “glitch” so much more often now it didn’t look like random noise like it did on Serenity’

Wash tapped on the screen. ‘I’ll say one thing though. I think they must have used a lot of Radar Absorbent Materials in the ship following us because it’s a very fuzzy return and the improved software should have even better resolution that it does’

River looked puzzled ‘If we were being followed for that long I would have felt it’ she said.

‘It’s a long way out River’ Mal pointed out.

She looked at him ‘I outrange the Radar’ she said ‘at long distance I don’t get a clear image of peoples thoughts but even that far out I’ll pick up stray emotions and I should have if it’s been that long’ she paused ‘Automated Vessel’ she stated. ‘If there were crew onboard I would have known it was there’

‘A rutting AI ship?’ Mal said ‘But they’ve been illegal since the migration. Too many go nuts and crash into things’

River looked at him ‘If there were people on board I would have known. It’s a machine’

‘In that case who would have the pull and the money to get one built, especially one with stealth characteristics, and who would know that if they were going to trail us secretly they needed to use an unmanned… ‘Wash grimaced ‘Māde’ he swore.

‘Hands of Blue’ River said. She looked terrified.

Mal put his arm around her ‘We’ll never let them take you, you know that’

‘I know you’d try’ she replied and hugged him back.

‘Hang on if they found us that long ago why haven’t they tried to stop us by now?’ Wash asked. ‘And why aren’t we being chased by Alliance warships?’

‘Their secret project might be too secret to get too many others involved. Still don’t explain why they ain’t come for River themselves’ Mal said ‘Any ideas genius?’

‘I don’t know. Observing me from afar maybe? Seeing how I get on in real life, perhaps they think it’s like a rat in a maze with the whole ‘Verse as a maze?’

Mal frowned ‘That would be a change in tactics. They used to just chase you’

‘Didn’t get them very far’ Wash pointed out ‘She always kept us a step ahead’

River still looked worried but the hug was helping ‘We don’t know what they’re up to. Too many variables, I still don’t know what they really wanted me for. I know the widespread opinion is “psychic assassin” but that’s just guesswork’

‘What are we going to do?’ Wash asked.

‘Go about our business as usual. If it’s been following us for well over half a year I don’t think it’s an immediate cause for concern. We just need to figure out a way to knock it out then leave fast before they do something about it’

‘You know that they can predict where we’re heading. One day they’ll be an ambush’

Mal smiled ‘Yeah but they’ll sure be surprised at who’s doing the ambushing now we know they’re there. Wouldn’t mind getting my hands on one of them for a question or answer session involving Jayne and a nice sharp knife’

‘So we prepare for company every time we make planet fall. At least now with Granite we can leave a ship in orbit and they won’t know which Vessel River is on that’ll confuse things’ Wash said.

‘Yep and meanwhile River here can give some thought towards how we take out our stalker’

River’s expression shifted from scared to thoughtful ‘There are a few possibilities give me a while and I’ll be back with a plan’

‘You do that’

* * *

‘We’re being followed by an AI?’ Inara asked.

‘That’s our best guess given that River can’t pick up any crew aboard’ Mal replied.

Steven pursed his lips ‘I suppose that’s an honour, lets hope it doesn’t go schizophrenic and try to ram us. Used to happen all the time, something to do with multitasking leading to multiple personalities and disagreement with itself on a course of action’ he tapped his fingers on the bulkhead. ‘We had an AI at the university which was sane. It was also smart as all hell and surprisingly funny’

‘Funny?’ Book asked

‘It downloaded all the jokes it could from the Cortex and used them to facilitate communication with people, it worked out it was a lot less intimidating to technophobes if it was personable. Like I said it was smart’

‘I suppose it’s too much to hope that our shadow is another frustrated stand-up comedian in a metal box’ Wash said.

‘If it’s modelled on the military AI’s of the early 24th Century it will be a very cunning opponent. Also the chances are that the vessel itself will be extremely fast and manoeuvrable, if you remove the crew, the life support and the other things needed for human habitation like artificial gravity decking you’ve got a lot more mass available for engines, fuel tanks, thrusters etc in the same sized ship’ River told them.

‘EMP?’ Mal asked.

‘Too easy to harden against’ Steven said ‘the electronics on my old Excalibur were resistant to serious levels of Electromagnetic Pulse and we didn’t have the funding to make really state of the art machinery like these boys’

‘Back in the war we would have dropped a bunch of seeker mines’ Zoe said.

‘Seeker Mine?’ Simon asked.

‘Kinda like a mine crossed with a missile, covered with radar and light absorbing material. You just dump it inert out the back and when something gets close enough to trigger the passive sensors it activates a rocket and slams into it. Because it doesn’t give a radar signature and it’s almost totally powered down you can’t see it until it’s too late’

‘If we’re wishing for things we ain’t got a laser cannon would be handy too’ Jayne said ‘or maybe a couple of nukes’ he said sarcastically.

‘I’m working on an idea’ River said ‘but I need to put some more thought into it and we’ll have to be in orbit’

‘Until then we wear side-arms at all times in case someone else turns up and we have both ships and the shuttles prepped for a quick departure’ Mal ordered.

‘I’ll make sure everything’s ready to fly’ Kaylee said and dashed off. She looked concerned but she trusted her Captain implicitly.

‘In the meantime if you thought you were getting way with it you ain’t Simon’s medicals start in an hour. Don’t make me track you down and drag you there myself’ Mal said. ‘Anybody who ain’t healthy is a liability and when it comes to that stuff the Doc’s word is final’

Mal pointed to Steve and faced Simon ‘Recommend more exercise for baldy here’ he said. ‘He’s thinner than he was but could still stand to lose some pounds’

‘I was planning to’ Simon told him.

Steve frowned ‘Well educated War Heroes should get more respect’ he complained.

‘What about smartass cavalrymen’ Zoe asked him.

‘Them too’ he replied

* * *

The crew took shifts watching the radar screen but it never changed. Every so often the blip would reappear than go out of range again. After four days it became so monotonous that even River started to relax as much as she could with her birthday approaching. The thing that was at the backs of everyone’s mind was why the opposition following them not trying to capture them. What were they waiting for?

In any case life goes on and being chased was not exactly a whole new experience for this crew so they just on with things after the initial concern wore off. River would figure out a way to get rid of the mechanical bloodhound then they could just get back to the routine smuggling, robberies and gunfights.

One thing that was far from routine was River Tam’s twentieth birthday and the crew were going to make a big deal of that one. Kaylee made Simon promise not to make his “I didn’t get you anything” joke for the third year running.

Normal ships operations continued despite birthdays, so River began the day going through computer code with Wash, then had to help finish clean the last of the living quarters on Granite Gorge. The vessel was now starting to look far less like a disaster area and more like a quality piece of spacefaring hardware, it certainly smelled a great deal better in the crew compartment anyway.

It seemed like a very long day to River. But eventually it was evening and a party was laid out in her honour on the cargo deck of the Granite Gorge.

Jayne opted to go first on giving presents and produced River’s Wolverine Carbine with newly fitted custom grips he’d had made. As far as the mercenary went it was about the sweetest thing he could think of.

‘A firearm has a personality’ he said ‘you should have something that marks it out as yours’. When he passed it over, empty of course, she found he had also had her name engraved onto a small black metal plate inset on the grips.

‘It still goes back in the arms locker though’ Mal pointed out resulting in a nasty look from both River and Jayne.

Thinking he had better make it up to her Mal produced an Independent Browncoat in her size. He said she deserved it which was to his thinking about the most honour you could bestow on anyone.

Feeling how strongly he felt about it River thought so too and practically throttled him with an enormous hug. ‘I can’t breath’ he eventually said more than a little bit embarrassed. The worst thing was the way the rest of the crew looked at him, being thought of as nice was contrary to his carefully crafted persona. Kaylee’s expression was the worst as always.

‘Difficult to trump that’ Jennifer said and produced the present from the Hicks family. It was a pocket computer, about ten years old but serviceable and well-maintained.

‘It’s got a whole library of books encoded plus a few games’ Steven told her ‘You can beat the computer up at chess instead of me now’ he turned to Cally ‘don’t let my daughter borrow it or you’ll never get it back. You’ll already see her name on the high-scores on almost every game’

‘I had to check it worked’ Cally said ‘It does’ she told River.

Everybody else gave their gifts with Zoe and Wash contributing a well made, though utilitarian by design pocket knife which made it easy to guess who chose it, and most of the others contributing a more adult style of clothing to Rivers wardrobe.

Simon came last. He pulled a small box out of his pocket and handed it to her.

She opened it and found a silver bracelet made to look like a flowing river.

Simon spoke up ‘I remembered you used to have one like that before you went off to the academy and I saw it four planets back so I had to get it’ he said. I thought your jewellery collection was a little bit sparse too’

River looked at it then back to her brother up at him ‘Daddy gave me the bracelet for my twelfth birthday. He said I was special and he loved me’

‘I’m sure he still does. Just like I do’ Simon told her.

She put the bracelet on ‘It means more from you’ she said ‘I know you mean it’ she said then embraced her older brother.

‘Do we get to eat the cake now?’ John asked loudly.

‘I’m asking again’ Cally said in a stern tone of voice ‘Can I spank him?’

* * *

Serenity/Granite Gorge – Orbiting Macau – 2520AD

Mal addressed the crew. ‘As you know we’re keeping Serenity in Orbit and making landfall in Granite Gorge. Kaylee and Simon have volunteered to stay with Serenity though I can’t see why’

‘I can’ River said and smirked at her brother.

Mal hushed her ‘In any case we are bringing a few crates of the more easily saleable parts with us. Macau isn’t exactly hugely developed but there is a tech market here and Wash says he knows a dealer’

‘What about the expensive parts and when are we selling the ship?’ Jayne asked.

‘Hopefully the next stop along. We’ll be heading back into the more “civilised” systems to get a better price’ Mal answered.

‘What are we doing about our mechanical companion?’ Simon asked

‘River says she should be able to pick up what she needs down here. Then we get rid of it before we move on’

‘Glad to hear it’

‘Remember folks we’re wanted and at least some of the people that want us know where we are. They’ve known for months and ain’t done a darn thing about it but nevertheless we should be alert. Nobody goes anywhere without backup and I hope those that pack iron are ready to use it’

‘I’m lending River my pistols’ Simon told Mal ‘Her rifle is a bit conspicuous’

‘I had to put an extra hole in his gun-belt to make it fit’ River said.

‘When do I get a gun?’ Cally asked. ‘I’ve used one before’

‘Let’s aim for never’ her mother answered. The idea of her little girl so much as touching a firearm again was awful. Good thing she didn’t know Jayne had already shown her both how to hold a pistol properly and also to strip and reassemble several kinds already.

‘I’ve heard the produce available in the markets here is very varied so I’m heading that way with Jennifer and the children’ Book announced. ‘Inara is coming too’

‘You go with ‘em Jayne’ Mal ordered.

‘But Captain…’

Mal signalled for the mercenary to go to one side and walked over to him. He leaned in close and whispered in his ear ‘We just met a load of slavers and you know how much those little girls would be worth to some sick son-of-a-bitch. I’ll take over from you later on so you can go do whatever it is you do but until then me and their Pa are busy and you’re the toughest I got so you go with them’ he ordered.

Jayne thought about it and looked over at the girls ‘Ain’t nobody touching them’ he said.

‘Damn straight they ain’t’ Mal said. ‘We look after our own’

* * *

Transport Granite Gorge – Qingdao Spaceport: Macau – 2520AD

‘Trader I know is about a mile that way. I’ll ride the mule and haul the gear over there with Zoe and River’ Wash said.

‘Right, Steven and I are going to see if there’s a decent market for firearms where we can unload our surplus stock. We’ll probably need you along for the price negotiations River and so…’ he stopped ‘River I’m talking to you’

River spun around with a confused look on her face ‘Oh I’m sorry Captain I’ve just got a strange feeling. It’s as if something is wrong but it isn’t’

‘This isn’t one of your precognition things is it?’

‘No I’m really not sensing danger just that something isn’t quite right. I’ve never felt this before’ she paused ‘it’s the strangest feeling’ she said.

‘Paranoia keeps you breathing. Stay alert and keep your radio turned on, if you feel something definite let me know and we’ll leave’

‘Yes Captain’

‘In the meantime as I was saying, after you’ve helped Wash I’ll probably want you to meet up with me and we can see if we’re getting the best deal on the guns’

‘How did we ever used to get on before we could get River to read the other guys mind during price negotiations?’ Wash asked ‘It just takes all the effort out of it when we know if we can get more’

‘Just as long as Jayne doesn’t take her to a casino again I don’t mind’ Zoe said ‘We spent six hours in that damn cell whilst they tried to figure out how they were doing it. I only went in to find out what was going on and got arrested too because I knew ‘em’

‘They couldn’t prove a thing but we still didn’t get the money back’ River complained ‘It wasn’t like they could actually establish I was cheating’

Mal sighed ‘Putting aside the injustices of not being able to get away with cheating at cards can we all get on with our jobs please’

‘I’ve got the samples in this case’ Steven said ‘So we’re ready to go’

‘Let’s be off then’

The crew went their separate ways with the Captain and Steven heading the furthest into town seeking the local armourers. Wash had been here before and had steered them in approximately the right direction.

* * *

Wash was sat across from the trader. He was from New Mecca and they were negotiating a price over coffee the traditional brew of merchants from that world.

‘I really cannot afford to go any higher on the price. I’ll be cutting my own throat as it is’ the merchant said.

Wash surreptitiously looked over at River who shook her head and tapped her fingers on the column she was leaning against three times. ‘Well if that’s your final option I’m afraid I’ll have to find another buyer for our goods’ the pilot said and made as if he was going to get up.

‘No my friend perhaps I can offer perhaps another two thousand platinum’ the trader offered.

‘Four’

‘Three’ the trader said.

‘Done’ Wash agreed and held out his hand for shake on the deal.

Zoe was standing to one side with her hand resting gently on her cut-down lever action. She had been concentrating on the trader’s two bodyguards the whole time and they had been glaring back at her since she was clearly the warrior of the group, it was the body language that was unmistakeable to another professional. The other two were armed as well but didn’t put out the vibes of being a threat.

Zoe pondered what would have happened if things had got nasty. Would she have been able to get off a shot before River killed them both? Probably not she decided.

The trader produced the platinum and offered the pilot the opportunity to check the amount but Wash shook his head and told him ‘I trust you’

This caused a big smile on the merchant who was unused to being treated with such trust and respect. What he didn’t know was that River had already indicated to Wash the merchant was being honest.

On the other side of town Mal and Steven were still trying to find a buyer for there surplus arms. They had tried a couple of dealers but they were uninterested in buying new, or rather reconditioned, stock which had both the serial numbers removed and no documentation.

Well actually the dealers were uninterested in paying more than a quarter of market value for them but it amounted to the same thing as far as Mal was concerned. He was sure he could get a better deal on another world.

They were just deciding whether or not to give up and head back to Serenity when the first burst of automatic fire hit Steven sending him flying and splashing his blood into the Captains face.

Part VIII

COMMENTS

Saturday, February 7, 2004 2:49 PM

AMDOBELL


Oh my good gorram, a rutting ambush! Well River didn't see that one coming though she did say something wasn't right. I'm really enjoying this story and can't wait to see what happens next. Very shiny, Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Monday, February 9, 2004 10:07 AM

ARTSHIPS


You're always putting in those little bits that make the characters real, like how Mal convinced Jayne to escort the kids. And that was a perfectly un-telegraphed ambush.

Friday, March 26, 2004 5:02 AM

JEBBYPAL


ack, you set up all these nice cute little old plots. Tell me you will eventually write about what happened with Jayne and River in the casino with more detail!!! I can just see it!


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