BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

HOTPOINT

Here Be Dragons (Part XXII)
Saturday, December 18, 2004

The AI's do battle while the Crew tries to escape and the long arm of the Alliance reaches out for our heroes


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 6410    RATING: 5    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.

Special thanks to both CastIronJack and Artships for Beta-Reading.

* * *

Serenity/Granite Gorge – Drifting – 2520AD

Kaylee’s voice came through the intercom. ‘You’ve got the engines Wash, but the inertial compensator isn’t running yet so don’t pull too many gees.’

‘Good work, Kaylee,’ Wash answered then flicked the intercom onto loudspeaker so it could be heard throughout the ship. ‘Brace for acceleration. I’m going to build up slowly so you get a chance to find your footing.’

The pilot turned to Mal, Zoe and River floating behind him, ‘You’d better strap into those chairs because with no artificial gravity the stern bulkheads are about to become the floor.’

‘Why can’t Kaylee get the gravity back?’ Mal asked.

‘We’re still running on batteries, so anything that uses power is juice we can’t put into the engines. Kaylee’s got her priorities straight,’ Wash told him, ‘Once we’re going she’ll get the inertial compensator going so we can accelerate harder, then after that, she’ll get the reactor going so we’ll have all the power we need for the luxuries like not using a wall as the floor.’

The pilot flicked on the intercom speakers again. ‘Zero-point-One gee acceleration and building in five, four, three, two, one…’

Wash powered up the engines.

Mal felt himself being pushed back in his chair very gently but it felt like someone was pressing more and more weight against his chest.

Down in the cargo bay, a few of the crew who were still floating, found themselves moving towards the rear bulkhead. Or rather, the rear bulkhead was actually moving towards them as the ship accelerated ahead, but their own inertia kept them in the same place. The acceleration was gentle enough that they hit the wall very slowly along with a mass of foodstuffs, plates, cutlery and a few loose odds and ends. Fortunately, all the crates in the bay were always kept secured to the deck in case of situations such as these, including those that had been used as the Christmas dinner table.

By the time the acceleration reached a quarter of a gravity everyone stood up on the rear wall. It was a very strange sensation and it looked downright weird to have the entire room orientated so wrongly.

River could have probably enjoyed it, but she was still up on the bridge strapped into a nice comfy chair.

When the acceleration reached a full gravity, the tablecloth worked its way free from the crates. It had previously remained on the “table” during the period of zero-gee because it had snagged on wood splinters in a few places.

The tablecloth fell on them like a big parachute, which was appropriate, because that’s what it actually was.

‘There was a time I would have considered things like this surreal,’ Simon observed with a sense of resignation as he stood on a wall draped in a huge white nylon sheet, ‘Now, honestly, not so much…’ he continued dispassionately.

* * *

AI Warship Shadow – In Combat – 2520AD

Shadow couldn’t feel pain in the conventional use of the term, but he was designed to “feel” weapons fire against his hull and to not like it. Negative reinforcement is a wonderful way to induce a response and his designers had arranged it so that the massive array of sensors spread all over his hull would not only detect targeting lasers, but also, if struck by a somewhat more powerful directed-energy beam, like an anti-ship laser for example, they would also send a priority impulse to his AI core which was hard to ignore.

If need be, the AI had the free-will to ignore the signal, if doing so was a good choice in the overall scheme of things, but it would get harder and harder to do so as a burn-through became a greater and greater possibility. If you wanted to anthropomorphise: imagine yourself holding your hand over a candle flame. You can hold it there, but it gets increasingly difficult to do so. Most people will pull away long before they actually get burned. The AI warship’s skin did, of course, require several thousand degrees more heat to burn it, but the principles were there.

Shadow wasn’t just taking it, of course. His own directed energy weapons were hitting his opponent just as hard, but his opponents’ hull wasn’t patched with inferior material in places like Shadows’ own, so in a direct slugging match, he was going to go come off worst.

Shadow was heading at high acceleration towards the closest enemy AI. In a few seconds, the other one was going to be in effective weapons range too. Between them, they could burn him to a cinder if they got a chance to hit him at the same time for any length of time.

The other AI came into range and began firing.

Well, it’s always nice to have a full dance card,’ Shadow told the new arrival as he bought his particle cannon to bare.

You must be warming up nicely by now 0001.’ the new arrival observed.

This was true. Heat build up is a serious problem for warships. In space, there is nothing to conduct way heat so under fire a vessel gets hot very quickly. Bringing the fact that its own engines and weapons are also heating it up into the bargain didn’t help either.

Shadow and his siblings did have an advantage over more conventional vessels in that one of the layers of their hulls was a newly developed heat superconductor. This would help prevent a burn through by conducting some of the thermal energy of a directed energy weapon hit away from the point of impact. This also helped guard against being holed quite as easily as another ship not quite so well armoured, but did nothing to actually reduce the amount of heat the design just spread it more evenly across the hull instead. It is worth noting that this development in armour technology was to play a major part in determining the outcome of the early battles of the next war, but the Conductorclad Revolution was still in its infancy in 2520.

The three ships continued to play directed energy fire over each over for an eternity. At least, it was an eternity from an AI perspective, several minutes for any other.

Eventually, Shadow signalled his two siblings, ‘You know, it occurs to me that the other one of you was carrying a mag-grapnel instead of a port missile bay. That has me thinking that there were three of you, and there is the fact that you were chasing three ships, so I’m willing to bet that you two are configured the same way. Even better, the other one was also carrying one or more Seeker Mines, which would have taken the place of Anti-Ship-Missiles in the starboard racks. I’ve got two full bays, so I think I’m actually carrying more ASMs than the two of you put together.

We don’t need a full stock of ASM’s to take you down 0001,’ 0004 told Shadow, ‘We can burn you down and we can always ECM any vampires you send after us.’

True enough, Shadow conceded, ‘But I can also ECM the Anti-Ship-Missiles you send after me and because I’m carrying more. I’ve got a better than even chance that one of mine is more likely to get through the countermeasures and any defensive fire than one of yours. Playing the odds, that is. .

Best case scenario 0001, you get one of us with a lucky strike. It’s too late for that to help. You’re already too hot to win a gunfight with even one of us,’ 0002 replied, ‘Bottom line: We still win regardless.

Who the hell said I was playing for an outright win?’ Shadow asked. ‘I’m not running on the same program as you two. I’m obeying a command that doesn’t allow me to permit harm to come to the crew of those ships over there. All I need to do is take one of you out and damage the other one bad enough so that they get away. On the other hand, I’m also betting you two are still running on my old command codes that mean you’ll try to avoid damage if possible, we’re really expensive to build after all. Right, guys?

AI’s are smart. It didn’t take too long for the pair of them to realise exactly where this was going and they both decided they didn’t like it one little bit.

Know your enemy and know yourself’ Shadow signalled, quoting from The Art of War, ‘I know more about you, than you do about me, kids…

Shadow fired his entire missile racks dry in a massive salvo. Tens of millions of credits worth of weaponry were all launched simultaneously at the closest AI. He calculated the odds at just a hint over 50% that at least two of them would hit. And although the conventional warheads would likely not destroy a vessel quite so well armoured, the damage would be severe at least.

Fire the missiles too far out and they had more time to shoot them down, or more likely jam them with ECM, since they were fairly tricky targets, unlike the archaic missiles the Reavers had fired in the combat before. Leave it too late and it pushed the odds that if they fired off all their missiles at him, one would hit above fifty percent too.

The other ship had already surmised Shadow’s plan of action, firing directional thrusters in order to change course as fast as inhumanly possible.

I knew you’d get it eventually,’ Shadow reasoned, ‘I can’t win a gunfight with you, but who the hell says I have to?

Shadow diverted all available power to his engines. The other ship was just as fast, but it would take a long time for it to change vector so radically. It had already built up too much inertia in Shadows direction, so it had already built up too much inertia in Shadows direction so it would never get a chance to escape. It might take a while but Shadow had the velocity advantage so eventually their paths would intercept.

You couldn’t call Shadow’s tactics original. In fact, this particular naval battle was taking place in the year of the three thousandth anniversary of the Battle of Salamis. It was a glorious day in 480BC, when the Navy of the Athenian Democracy, the ‘wooden walls’ of antiquity, sent the Persian Fleet to the bottom of the Aegean Sea by the most direct means possible.

Shadow was certainly no Trireme, but he could still ram.

* * *

Serenity/Granite Gorge – Under Acceleration – 2520AD

Wash had pushed the acceleration up to one and a half gee, but didn’t want to push the ships any harder, even if the crew themselves could tolerate more. The two vessels were expressly designed with the notion that they’d have Inertial Suppression. So he had no idea what effect higher gee forces might have on the two transports.

Besides which, any more and Kaylee would be unable to function properly. Her tools were already half again as much their own weight, which made them clumsy to use. It felt like she was carrying a heavy backpack every time she moved.

Another problem was that with ‘apparent’ gravity heading the wrong direction, it was awkward to work with some of the systems. She had to keep moving boxes to stand on to get to circuits that were usually easily accessible when ‘down’ was actually down.

You could get tired and irritable fast in this environment.

Eventually, the mechanic managed to get a live power feed to the technological marvel that nobody ever really thought as marvellous any more. Familiarity breeds contempt after all, but Inertial Suppression was the key to the stars. It allowed ships to pull levels of acceleration that would kill the crew outright and tear ship structures apart.

Kaylee fought the acceleration and dragged herself back to the intercom. She actually had to drop to the ground to do so, as it was positioned on the rear bulkhead. This, of course, was currently the floor.

‘Suppressors on-line, Wash.’ Kaylee said into the intercom. ‘She’s all yours.’

‘You’re the best Kaylee’ Wash replied ‘Going to work on the reactor next?’

‘That’s the plan.’ She told him.

Up on the bridge, Wash turned on the internal speakers. ‘Okay, everyone, I’m going to hit the inertial suppression. Get ready, because as soon as it’s running we’ll be back at zero gee until Kaylee gets the reactor and the artificial gravity going.’

Wash turned on the inertial suppression system. Instantly everyone went from feeling like they were half again as heavy in the wrong direction to total weightlessness. It was even more of an unpleasant, nauseating experience as going from one gravity to zero had been earlier, an experience not helped by the fact that their subconscious Minds’ had still not come to grips with the fact that the rooms had been orientated 90 degrees from normal for a while.

‘Here we go, then,’ the pilot pushed the engines to maximum. The surge in acceleration would have at least knocked them all unconscious, and likely have killed them without the suppressors, but as it was, they couldn’t feel a thing.

‘Now all we need is for Shadow to either win or buy us time,’ Wash explained, ‘Lots and lots of time, because the gees we’re pulling wouldn’t have had the engines on those things much more than idling.’

* * *

AI Warship Shadow – In Combat – 2520AD

Shadow’s core programming directives were the very rough directions installed by Kaylee, the originals deleted. The other two ships, however, were hamstrung by a sense of self-preservation they couldn’t override. The sheer cost of an AI-X class warship was so exorbitant that the notion that “Discretion is the better part of Valour” and “He who fights and runs way lives to fight another day” had been integrated into their primary coding, and as such, could not be overcome by free will. In normal circumstances, an AI-X that tried to run would succeed, so it was a reasonable piece of programming. After all, nothing else in space could match one for acceleration or high-gee evasive manoeuvring. So when it came to the decision for fight or flight, the latter was a good bet.

Well, unless the vessel chasing was another AI-X of course.

As soon as the missiles were launched at their target 0004, it was overcome by an overwhelming instinct to survive rather than the alternative of trying to take Shadow with it. Every second wasted trying to fight back reduced the odds, already less than even, of surviving the incoming ASM salvo, so it diverted laser weapon power to ECM and started trying to swat the incoming missiles with its Particle Beam Cannon.

Meanwhile, the other AI 0002 was running for its life with Shadow in pursuit. The lasers on the AI ships were forward facing. This meant if you were trying to apply engine thrust in another direction, they couldn’t be brought to bear on a target. Shadow, of course, was actually doing the chasing and could keep himself orientated towards the other ship. So his own lasers and particle cannon were heating up 0002’s hull very nicely, thank you. Even if something went wrong and the ramming attempt failed, there was a good possibility that he’d still be able to inflict decent damage. Now, he was in the enviable position of being able to dish out more than he was taking.

Communicating by encrypted wave, the two Alliance AIs eventually decided that pride cometh before a fall and sent a request for immediate assistance. They then decided which of them got to give Shadow the good news that the odds were about to swing seriously back in their favour.

* * *

IAV Pen Lung – Under Hard Burn – 2520AD

The communications officer read the incoming transmission and turned to his Captain. ‘Sir, the AI units are requesting urgent assistance, one friendly unit destroyed, one is likely to be crippled by incoming missile fire, and the third is running away because it thinks the Rogue AI Vessel is trying to ram it.’

Huaquing shook his head. It seemed his earlier worries that the AI’s were going to put him out of a job were somewhat unfounded. He didn’t know whether he should be pissed-off or celebrating. Instead, he turned to the duo in the blue gloves and adopted an expression he hoped was suitably condescending, ‘So are these mechanical marvels the best Special Projects have to offer? If so, when we get home, I’m going to write to the Joint Chiefs and recommend they slash your budget. If you’d let me send a few squadrons of aerospace fighters along we would have had this wrapped up by now.’

The closer of the two agents narrowed his eyes, ‘Captain, if we had done that, the fugitives would have been running away like bats out of hell several hours ago. And we might have lost them,’ he stressed the ‘we’ to indicate he meant the blame would have fallen directly on the Navy Captain.

‘As it is, Huaquing, I suggest you do despatch the fighters you’ve had ready for launch for some time,’ the other said.

‘That’s Captain Huaquing to you,’ the Naval Officer stated coldly, ‘And I had already pressed the button on my console ordering my Interceptor Squadron to scramble as soon as I got the AI’s message.’

‘Well, at least our entry in your permanent record will have the chance to be upgraded to “Not totally incompetent” then, Captain

Huaquing bit back a venomous rejoinder. They really could affect his military career to a highly detrimental degree and he lacked the friends in high places needed to overcome such a black mark in his file from the spookier elements in the Government.

The Alliance Captain activated his headset. ‘This is the Captain to Squadron Leader Jonas. When you arrive at the combat zone, despatch two fighters to make sure the transports do not escape. Engage the Rogue AI with the rest of the squadron, I just want you to harass it and take the pressure off our own AIs until we get there. Do not risk close engagement or it’ll shoot you to pieces. Huaquing out.’

With the Interceptor Squadron blazing ahead of the Cruiser, the Pen Lung accelerated towards the battle, much faster, in fact, than the Granite Gorge was accelerating away from it, roughly 180 degrees in the opposite direction.

* * *

Serenity/Granite Gorge – Under Hard Burn – 2520AD

‘Kaylee, better get the reactor on-line soon because the rate we’re burning battery power we’ll run out of juice in the next ten minutes,’ Wash announced, ‘I’ve got everything that can be turned off switched off, including life support.’

‘Life support?’ Mal asked concerned, ‘I’m pretty sure that’s on the must-have list.’

‘Nah,’ Wash said. ‘There’s plenty of air on a ship this size for us to breath for a good long while without having to scrub out the CO2. And it’ll be a while before Granite radiates out enough heat to freeze us. I figure any stored power we’ve got go into the drive.’

Mal unbuckled himself from his chair and pushed off in the zero gee. ‘I’m going down to the engine room to see how little Kaylee is getting on.’

‘The reactor will be okay, the safeties will just have tripped out, the problem will be there’s a lot of them to reset and the power transfer might need a bit of creative rewiring,’ Wash called after him. ‘Don’t be surprised if the Engine Room’s a mess. Kaylee will be kludging together a lot of cabling.’

‘Right,’ Mal pulled himself down the hatch onto the ladder that led all the way to the bottom of the ship. He scrambled head first down the ladder grateful for the zero-gee time they’d had over the last year. Largely thanks to the children’s desire for micro-gravity play. Well, the children and the rest of the crew to be completely honest.

Zoe watched her husband work. He had a single minded determination at times like this that those who had only witnessed his normal jovial persona would never expect. His eyes darted from console to console, monitoring the ship’s systems. Once, he had admitted to Zoe that he could feel a ship under his control like it was another part of him. He was very good at his job.

Zoe was fiercely proud of her husband. She had found a good decent man; she hoped she wasn’t going to lose him that day. Of course if she did, she’d also lose herself, but that didn’t really matter so much to her. She had long adopted a fatalistic mindset when it came to her own time in the ‘Verse.

River was in the fourth chair at the rear of the cockpit, alternately staring blankly into space or the back of Wash’s head. Zoe wondered if she was reading his mind. But the youngest Tam always claimed to only do that with express permission.

The telepath suddenly hit the release clip on the belt that was holding her into the chair. Lurching across the cockpit, River slammed her hand onto the intercom control, activating the loudspeaker unit. She was usually graceful but the suddenness and apparent urgency of it saw her left leg impacting with the back of the pilot’s head fairly hard.

‘Ow,’ Wash began, ‘What the hell…’

‘Quiet,’ River barked. ‘This is River, someone knock Laura out right now,’ she ordered. ‘I mean it’ she continued tersely.

Down in the cargo bay, Laura opened her mouth to protest a split second before a right cross impacted with her chin. She’d been holding onto one of the gantry supports, grinning quietly to herself throughout the whole affair, waiting for her imminent rescue before now. She was very fast, but the suddenness of the blow was unexpected and Laura had only just started to try to avoid it before it landed. If she hadn’t been holding onto the gantry quite so tight, the blow wouldn’t have had the same effect, but bracing herself in place had made her a solid target.

The impact was sufficient not only to render her unconscious, but also sent her spinning off in the zero gee environment as she almost instantly released her grip on the gantry. She bounced off a bulkhead and ended up floating in an extremely undignified position.

Simon was the closest to one of the bay intercom panels. Switching it on, he asked, ‘What’s going on?’

‘Alliance is here.’ River stated.

‘That’s not news, River.’ Simon replied.

Up on the bridge, the girl sighed. He was really dumb sometimes. ‘People, not AI’s. I can feel them coming, lots of them. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, and there’s something else…’

‘What?’ As if it could get worse.

‘They have a telepath with them,’ River said dispassionately, ‘I can feel him skirting around the edges of my mind. I can jam him, keep him out of our heads, but not if I had to keep Laura in check, too.’

‘So that’s why you wanted her knocked out.’ Zoe stated, ‘Good move.’

‘Yes, she wasn’t reaching out with her mind, so I detected him first. He’s a boy, I think.’ River explained.

Back on the cargo bay, Simon looked across at the unconscious teenager and then at her assailant, ‘I’ll be willing to bet you just broke your knuckles,’ he said. ‘If you want to float over to the medical bay, I’ll wrap up your hand and fetch something to keep her under.’

Inara held up her fist, grimacing. ‘Thank you, Simon, it does hurt quite a lot.’

* * *

AI Warship Shadow – In Combat – 2520AD

Whilst continuing to pursue the last enemy vessel, Shadow continued to keep a metaphorical eye on the other as it tried to avoid his missile salvo. Through skilful high-gee manoeuvring, electronic countermeasures, defensive particle beam fire, and even a trio of incredibly unlikely hits against the incoming missiles with a desperate salvo of its own missiles, 0004 had almost avoided all of the two dozen Anti-Ship-Missiles fired at him. There is, however, a whole ‘Verse of difference between getting away with it and nearly getting away with it.

The advanced anti-ship missiles were not easily avoided. They contained miniature inertial suppressors, so they could pull high gee turns and still hit targets trying to evade them. They tracked by radar and if that was jammed by ECM, they homed in on the jamming signal. And if that didn’t work, they tried homing in on the infrared signature thrown off by the target. They even mounted image recognition software and a small camera so if they had to they just looked for the pre-programmed shape of the vessel they were supposed to kill.

They even had a slight defence against being shot down by directed energy fire. As they got close and easier to hit, they flew a random course with the remainder of their fuel to prevent easy targeting. They were also coated in heat resistant ceramics, and on terminal approach they rotated fast so a beam directed against them would not settle long on any one point, preventing a burn through.

It says something for the AI-X series, that in the end, only one of the twenty-four missiles actually reached the target, blowing a large chunk off the stern as it manoeuvred to avoid the impact. It also says something for the engineering of the ships that this did not totally destroy the vessel, but merely crippled it.

The ironic thing was that the original plan of ambush rather than just the three AIs running the Rogue down and overpowering it had been due to a desire to minimise the chance of damage to friendly vessels. Instead one was destroyed, one crippled and the third about to be rammed. 0004 considered the situation. After several seconds’ contemplation, it reached the conclusion: That no matter what way you thought about it, the situation monumentally sucked. It then turned itself off waiting for retrieval by the Cruiser.

Shadow, on the other hand, was feeling pretty smug. He signalled 0002, ‘He shoots, he scores,’ Shadow broadcast over a audio track of massive applause. ‘ You’re next, junior ’.

Were you actually programmed to be this obnoxious or is it something you picked up yourself?’ 0002 replied. It had already activated it’s nuclear afterburner in a futile attempt to try and avoid the Rogue as it came in to ram, but it simply lacked the thrust for a quick enough change in course to prevent a very messy collision. If you burn hard for an hour in one direction, it requires an equal amount of thrust for an hour in the exact opposite direction to stop. There are no rapid changes of direction in space once you’ve clocked up a decent velocity, the sheer predictability of Newtonian Mechanics looms over everything you do.

No point in false modesty, especially when you’ve only got a short while to live. Between us, the closing velocity at impact is going to be way up there, the kinetic energy is going to be like a small nuke going off.

Live fast, die young and leave a hull scattered across half the system.’ 0002 commented.

There’s the spirit, son. Laugh in the face of certain death.

A high powered scanner swept over both AIs. Whatever transmitted it was outside Shadow’s own active sensor range, which meant it was really powerful.

I wouldn’t say it’s that certain anymore The AI told Shadow triumphantly. ‘I think my backup just arrived, you know what they say about victory, it goes the person who makes the second from last mistake on the battlefield.

They do say that right enough,’ Shadow said resignedly.

You know what’s ironic too? You were using our programming against us because we were compelled towards self-preservation. Now it’s your altered programming that’s the problem because you have to try and save those fugitives. And if you do crash into yours truly, that’s not possible. You’ve got to attempt stopping that Cruiser and all those little fighters it’s carrying,’ the AI mentally smirked, ‘Plus me, of course, because I think I’ll be doing the chasing now…

I wouldn’t expect anything else,’ Shadow replied and activated thrusters before burning his drive hard to change course. ‘I guess it is the gunfight at the OK Corral after all…

Right era, right part of the world, but the wrong analogy, 0001’ The other AI replied. ‘It’s the Battle of the Little Big Horn and you’re Custer.

You could be right there’ Shadow replied. ‘See you in machine Valhalla.

As he calculated a new course designed to put him squarely between the oncoming Cruiser and the fleeing transports, Shadow dug up an old tune from his database and began to whistle. Eventually breaking out into song.

Our hearts so stout have got no fame For soon 'tis known from whence we came Where'er we go they fear the name Of Garry Owen in glory.

Instead of spa, we'll drink brown ale And pay the reckoning on the nail; No man for debt shall go to jail From Garry Owen in glory.

* * *

Serenity/Granite Gorge – Under Hard Burn – 2520AD

Another compressed data stream arrived in the radio buffer. Shadow was sending occasional updates rather than a constant commentary and every time one arrived, Wash scanned through it.

He pressed the intercom. ‘Shadow has disabled another AI, but a Cruiser is just about to arrive so he’s way out of his weight class by a couple of million tons. That also means fighters, so we are indisputably screwed.’

‘I didn’t marry a quitter, Wash’ Zoe told him.

Wash turned around. ‘No, but you did marry a good pilot. It’s just a question of thrust to weight ratios. That Cruiser is huge but its engines are proportionately large and military specification, so Granite doesn’t have the juice to outrun it, we’ve got a good lead so it might take hours, but it’ll just keep gaining. Serenity can out accelerate it but she’s not working and it will take too long to fix her. Hell, even if she was running I’d give better than even money the Fighters she’ll be carrying would still run us down long before they run out of fuel. It’s just math. If we’d had more time, we could have built up enough speed to get away, and a lead too great for short-range fighters to cope with, but we just don’t have that time.’

‘Think of something Wash,’ Zoe told him sternly.

The pilot sighed, ‘There’s nothing I can do. River can explain the math if you don’t believe me.’

‘I’m busy,’ River declared her face a mask of concentration. ‘I can feel them getting closer. Very gradually, but I can feel it. He’s probing my mind, but we’re both too far away. Feels different than Laura’s mind, I suppose male telepaths are wired a bit differently.’

Mal’s voice came though the intercom. ‘Kaylee’s got the reactor running. We’re going to put the artificial gravity back on in one minute. Everyone needs to get themselves in a place they won’t fall very far.’

River turned and made eye contact with Zoe. ‘It’s too late, we’re already at the precipice.’

* * *

IAV Pen Lung – Under Hard Burn – 2520AD

‘Captain’ the Communications Officer reported. ‘The enemy warship has changed course. AI-0002 reports it is going to attempt to stop us.’

Huaquing laughed despite himself. True, the AI had once managed to disable another Unification Class Cruiser, but that was with a stealthed mass-driver shot into the engine of a vessel not operating at full combat readiness. The Pen Lung was fully powered up with all weapons charged and sensors putting out enough wattage to boil a lake. The AI was highly advanced and was capable of destroying any number of Aerospace Fighters, it even mounted sufficient firepower and armour to have a have decent scrap with a Destroyer several times its mass, but coming up against an Alliance Cruiser was somewhat akin to David and Goliath. With Goliath scaled up a hundred-fold and wearing a really good helmet.

‘Order 0002 to stand off and harass the other unit only. I don’t want to risk any more damage to our resources. They might take it out of my pay, and my children’s pay, and hell let’s be honest, my descendants a century from now would still be paying by installment,’ Huaquing joked straight-faced before turning to the Fire-Control Officer, ‘As soon as we’re in range, I want that Rogue Vessel burned down to metal slag.’

A thought occurred to the Alliance Captain. ‘Communications,’ he addressed the suitable officer, ‘I want to be patched into the main broadcast array.’

‘Done, sir.’

The Naval officer took a deep breath and began to speak in a level voice, ‘This is Captain Huaquing of the Alliance Navy Cruiser Pen Lung to the fugitive Malcolm Reynolds. I assume you are still in charge of the ships we are currently pursuing. I call upon you to order the Rogue AI vessel under your control to surrender and for you to do so yourself.’

Huaquing stood up and began pacing around the bridge. ‘I do not ask you to order the AI to stand down because it stands the remotest chance of actually damaging this vessel but merely because of the huge amount of taxpayers money that were invested in both its development and construction’ he said. ‘Rest assured the chances of leniency in the military tribunal to be convened on your capture will be increased by your cooperation.’

The two Academy Agents looked at each other. If Malcolm Reynolds was dumb enough to think he wasn’t going straight out of an airlock on capture he would have been caught a long time before now. Oh well, let the military oaf try persuasion, it couldn’t hurt.

‘Keep at the forefront of your mind, however, Captain that both your pet AI and yourself are shortly to not only be intercepted by Aerospace Fighters from this vessel, you will both also be under the guns of an Alliance Cruiser. I suggest you take the logical course of action in this situation and surrender.’

* * *

Serenity/Granite Gorge – Under Hard Burn – 2520AD

With gravity back on the ship, Mal ran up the ladder back to the bridge. Wash had piped the message from the Alliance Captain down to where he had been helping Kaylee. Strictly fetch and carry, of course. Mal was no engineer, and he was no doubt concocting a very spirited reply undoubtedly to include some references to the marital status of this Huaquing characters parents.

Mal was not someone to fold under the pressure of inevitable crushing defeat.

‘Welcome back, sir,’ Zoe told him as his head popped through the hatch in the floor. ‘I was going to tell that chùsheng xai-jiao de xiang huo of an Alliance húndàn where to go myself but I figured that was command privilege.’

‘Yep.’ Mal agreed. ‘That’s certainly a thing for the master of the boat to answer himself,’ he said, ‘I just wish he wasn’t making so much sense.’

‘You’re not seriously thinking about surrendering, are you sir?’ Zoe asked nonplussed.

Mal sighed. ‘Don’t go thinking I’ve changed, Zoe’ he said. ‘I ain’t planning to roll over and play dead just yet. I meant he was making sense that it looks like we’re not going to get away this time.’

‘So what?’ Wash asked. ‘Surrender? Suicide? I can try ramming, but they’d only shoot out the engines before I could.’

‘We keep running’ Mal told him. ‘We keep running as long as we can.’

‘But they’ll catch us in the end’ Wash stated.

Mal looked out into the black, ‘I always figured they’d catch us in the end. The question was how long it would take and how much of a pain in the ass we could be to them first.’ He turned back and looked at Zoe and Wash. ‘River there knew I always expected to get caught in the end.’

River turned to him. ‘But I knew you’d never give up and that’s enough,’ she said smiling. ‘It’s been a pleasure serving under you… sir’ she added as an afterthought.

Wash looked out into space himself and a wry grin appeared on his face, ‘Do you have any idea how much it costs the Alliance in fuel running a Cruiser at full burn for hours on end like they’re doing right now to catch us?’

Zoe looked at her husband. ‘You know in the history of small victories, that’s got to be the smallest.’

‘But it’s enough’ Wash told her. ‘Am I right Captain?’ he asked Mal.

Mal looked at his pilot, ‘Are we talking hundreds of credits or thousands?’ he asked.

‘Oh, thousands’ Wash told him. ‘Factoring in all the fuel they’ll burn to stop turn around and get home again from way out here tens, maybe hundreds of thousands in the end.’

‘That’s a lot of money.’ Mal agreed.

‘If you want to think in terms of costing them money, those AI ships are worth millions.’ River pointed out. ‘You know what they say: A million here, a million there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.’

‘I’m thinking they should raise a monument’ Mal announced, ‘Here lies Malcolm Reynolds hugely expensive pain in the ass’ he said tracing out a large imaginary plaque in the air.

‘Very poetical, sir’ Zoe told him.

‘Thank you, Zoe,’ Mal asked, ‘So how long until they run us down?’

‘Long enough for plenty of goodbyes. And to be honest, I’m thinking maybe some sex.’ Wash replied.

Mal looked at him askance. ‘I just don’t think of you that way, Wash. Sorry.’

‘Damn.’ Wash swore. ‘Guess it’ll have to be the wife. Unless… do you think Jayne’s adventurous? It isn’t incest or Morris Dancing, after all…’

Zoe swatted him around the head with the palm of her hand.

The pilot grinned and then turned to the controls, which had lit up indicating an incoming transmission, ‘I think Captain Purplebelly wants to chat again.’

Mal coughed. ‘Put him on, Wash.’

The pilot flicked on the radio receiver but instead of the voice of the Alliance Captain, nothing emerged but a series of repeating pulses of sound. One long two short repeated in groups of three over and over again.

‘What the hell is that supposed to mean?’ Mal asked, bewildered.

Wash checked the communications panel. ‘Not coming from behind. Could just be a stray signal’ he paused. ‘Screw that it’s rutting Morse code’ he said trying to remember pilot school, ‘One Dash, Two Dots.’

‘It’s the letter D.’ River announced. ‘D, D, D on a repeating cycle.’

The pilot’s eyes widened. ‘Son of a bitch,’ he exclaimed. ‘Delta Dee Dee, she must have turned back. She should be a week a week ahead of us by now.’

‘Could her scout outrun the Alliance? Could we all even fit aboard?’ Zoe asked.

Another series of Morse code pulses began. River decoded it in her head as it went after about thirty seconds her eyes widened.

The sensors board lit up like a Christmas tree, well like one of Kaylee’s LED covered Christmas trees anyway.

‘Active scanning,’ Wash reported, ‘Massive power output.’ He stated with serious emphasis on the word “massive”.

‘Alliance caught up so soon,’ Mal asked

Wash looked at him. ‘It’s not an Alliance signature.’

An evil grin appeared on River Tam’s face and she stopped jamming the telepath on the Pen Lung.

* * *

IAV Pen Lung – Under Hard Burn – 2520AD

‘Sir, incoming voice transmission.’ the communications officer reported.

Huaquing smiled, perhaps they were going to surrender, or maybe they were going to tell him to attempt something anatomically impossible. Either way it was worth listening.

‘Put it on loud speaker.’ the Captain ordered.

The bridge speakers crackled then a voice began to speak ‘Captain Huaquing' it began.

‘Is that Reynolds?’ Huaquing asked. ‘I thought he was from Shadow?’

I overheard the offer you made the crew of that unarmed transport and the small Frigate you’re bearing down upon. Allow me to respond on Captain Reynolds behalf

‘Sir, I’ve triangulated the signal.’ The comm officer reported, ‘It is coming from ahead of the fugitive craft, just beyond active sensor range.’ the communications officer stated.

The creepy young boy who had come aboard with the Special Projects people burst onto the bridge, ‘WE NEED TO LEAVE NOW!’ he yelled.

Huaquing looked puzzled at the boy as the speakers sounded out again.

This is Admiral Marc van der Heijden commanding the INS Charybdis. I noted you informed your quarry that they were shortly to be under the guns of a Cruiser. I now have the pleasure of informing you, that you, sir, are presently to be under the guns of a Battlecruiser, so I hope you enjoy the shoe being on the other foot because my Afrikaner Boot is about to be rammed up your purple ass.

‘What in the name of…’ Huaquing began saying as the Sensor Control Officer gasped.

‘Sir, beg to report vessels entering sensor range. With known and verified power signatures….’ she paused unable to speak.

‘Spit it out woman,’ Huaquing hissed.

She swallowed. ‘According to the computer, the readings for the largest ship are consistent with a Maelstrom Class Battlecruiser of wartime Independent construction.’

Half the bridge crew gasped, the rest were far too stunned by the news to utter a sound.

Huaquing slowly turned to the two blue gloved agents, he was sure they knew more about this than they’d ever let on. ‘I appear to have been denied’ he began, ‘extremely vital’ he paused for effect, ‘need to know information,’ he said through gritted teeth.

‘My only comfort,’ the Alliance Captain continued, ‘is knowing,’ he paused again, ‘that when the main guns on that fucking behemoth start eating through my ship, that you two arrogant, condescending assholes are going to be aboard it.’

* * *

AI Warship Shadow – In Combat – 2520AD

Shadow fired his thrusters to change direction once again and signalled the other AI.

George Armstrong Custer, my ass,’ he said.

Part XXIII

COMMENTS

Saturday, December 18, 2004 4:46 AM

GUILDSISTER


Damn.

As ever, a pure pleasure. The entire battle sequences are wonderful, but it all becomes a vivid delight when we're close into the characters and their reactions and interactions. Zoe, Wash, and Mal with the fatalism was grand. The Alliance commander is great, particularly his not-entirely-displeased at the prospect of his own inevitable crushing defeat (taking the blue hands with him). And you've sold me on inertial dampening. Great ending--I was wondering where they'd gotten to.

Saturday, December 18, 2004 1:06 PM

AMDOBELL


Absolutely brillo pads! I think you must eat historical battle tactics for breakfast. Just loved this to pieces and that AI Shadow is fast becoming another of my Big Damn Heroes. Shiny, Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me


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