What Are You Looking For?


Mile Markers

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Enjoy Chapter Four of Firefly: Slingshot--a Fan-Fiction Tribute to Firefly!

Mal and his crew are back. Always looking for a payday, Mal accepts a job from an old nemesis and occasional client: Badger. The payoff? More than he or his crew can imagine. But with such an astounding amount of scratch comes an equally astounding helping of danger. Read on!


Chapter 4
Trust Protocol

He was absorbed in the wagon's data when Kaylee appeared over his shoulder.

   "So is it real, then? Lichungyun?"

   He shrugged. "This is data on a planet, all right. Exabytes of it. It looks consistent enough … Hell, I don't know. Look at this—"

   He gruffly punched a console button. The holoprojector came to life. Kaylee exhaled softly. Zoe had come up quietly behind them both. She stared without commenting.

   The image floating placidly over the co-pilot's console was of a planet. Most of it was covered in virgin-white clouds, but the surface peeked through here and there, gray-green here, snowcapped there, the cerulean blue of ocean in random breaks.

   "It's beautiful …" whispered Kaylee.

   "And big," added Zoe, who crowded in to look at the data on the screen just beneath the holo. "One point nine eight times the mass of Earth-That-Was."

   "Any holos from the surface, Cap'n?" asked Kaylee.

   Mal poked a finger at a blinking light floating next to the holo and the image changed.

   Mountains. Lots of mountains.

   "Many are ten kilometers or higher," said Zoe. "Beautiful …"

   "And these valleys," remarked Kaylee. "So green … Show us more, Cap'n' …"

   Mal jammed a finger into the holo. It disappeared.

   "Hey!" both said at the same time.

   He turned in his seat. Jayne had entered the bridge and had just gotten a glimpse of it when it vanished. "That our port o' payoff?”

   Mal stood. He appraised all three as one does idiots who just can't understand a simple point. In a similar tone of voice he said, "You don't get it, do you?"

   They looked at him blankly.

   He turned and punched the button again. The planet reappeared.

   "You three don't see any problem?"

   They gazed at the image.

   "It's slightly out of focus?" asked Zoe.

   "It's too cloudy?" guessed Kaylee. "Bet the weather there is terrible …"

   Jayne, who Mal had gotten used to giving the stupidest answer to any question, surprised the hell out of him, because he said, "It's too damn bright. A planet that far away from its primary should be a dim bulb, even at the distance that holo was taken."

   "Ex-Exactly," said Mal, giving him a double-take. "We're talking about a world over two hundred billion goram miles from its primary, and that primary isn't much brighter than Sol! That 'world,' if it even exists, should be one giant, dark ice ball!"

   "How far did Badger say it was from its primary again?" asked Zoe.

   "Twenty-two hundred twenty-five shee-niou AU!”

   Zoe did the mental math. "Yep. More than two hundred billion miles."

   "Any questions?" Mal glared at each of them in turn.

   "I got one," came a grandmotherly voice directly behind Jayne. Jayne turned, growled.

   Deader had dressed in an olive-green worker's one-piece jumper. She stepped in front of him, unafraid.

   "Have you people considered that this mission has something to do with the fact that Lichungyun is twenty-two hundred twenty-five AU from its primary and yet shines like its bathing in Goldilock's bathtub? Well, have you?"

   Mal pointed at the projection. "A world that size and brightness would've been discovered by Alliance 'scopes before the colony ships even arrived!"

   Deader nodded calmly. "Think, Captain, about what you're saying."

   "I am thinking!"

   "Clearly you're not."

   Before he could yell a response, she cut across him. "There's a reason why Alliance 'scopes haven't spotted Lichungyun, or why their gravity detectors haven't discovered a mass that size in orbit. That reason is why we're going there."

   She stared at them, one by one. "It's time to clear out the cobwebs, ladies and gentlemen.”

   She clapped her hands together and rubbed them excitedly. "Now—who's hungry for some grub?"

   All hands shot up like schoolchildren after being asked who would like to take the rest of the day off and play. All hands except Mal's. Zoe and Kaylee saw this and lowered theirs unsurely. Jayne's hand was stiff as a post and poking into the ceiling. He caught Mal’s angry glare.

   "What? I'm hungry."

   Deader went to leave to the kitchen, but Mal stood and came around her and stopped her. "No. Before I take this boat anywhere I want explanations!"

   "Tell you what, Captain," said Deader, gazing up at him, "I'll fix us all some dinner and then you and I can sit down with the wagon and with anyone else who's interested and I'll go over it. Deal?"

   He felt like he was losing control. It was with that fear that he came right up against her and glowered. "Fine. But you best remember who's captain here. Do I make myself clear?"

   She looked intimidated—not at all. "Like the Soyuchong River."

   "Fine," said Mal, trying to grab a little of that captainly feeling back and having no luck. "Fine."

   Deader turned and smiled at Kaylee. "After dinner I'd like to meet Lenore. I assume she doesn't join the crew for dinner—?"

   That caught everyone off guard. As a unified chorus they said: "How do you know about Lenore?"

Lenore was Mr. Universe's love bot. They'd gotten married shortly before the Alliance murdered him and left her behind. Mr. Universe had planted last-minute instructions to Mal in her considerable memory as to the existence of a secondary transmitter, one he then used to send the grisly holo of a scientist in her last moments on Miranda as she explained the horrifying results of the Alliance's social-engineering attempt on that world. It was the Alliance's social engineering that created the Reavers. The scientist's last act in the Verse, caught on camera, was shooting at the Reavers who quickly overcame her and slaughtered her. Mal, after beating down the Alliance assassin sent to fetch River Tam and kill the crew of Serenity, sent that holo out to the entire Verse, on loop. It very nearly toppled the Parliament.

   Nearly. But nearly meant very little to a man like Malcolm Reynolds.

   He needed insurance. And he knew Mr. Universe would not let him down. He took a guess: Where would Mr. Universe squirrel away a Get Out of Jail Free card?


   The Alliance had left Mr. Universe's love bot alone. Her particular model wasn't considered particularly high tech; and as Mal studied her the day they brought her aboard, he thought that odd. Why would a tech geek as brilliant as Mr. Universe go with anything less than the very best?

   Kaylee had taken Lenore by the hand to the Engine Room to look her over. She glared at Mal at his suggestion that they cut her open to find out what's what, leading Lenore quickly away before any cruder suggestions were offered, of which Jayne had plenty.

   Lenore had said nothing to that point.

   Days passed before Mal, growing impatient, decided to stop in the Engine Room to get an update. He held up at the entrance.

   Lenore stood there in coveralls, spindle wrench in hand, examining the primary core. She turned her head, looked at him. Her cheek was splotched with engine grease.

   "Captain Reynolds," she said sweetly. "Greetings. What can I do you for?"

   Her actions weren't jerky, as they once were, but quicker, more fluid and lifelike. She blinked and waited for his answer.

   "Kaylee," he mumbled, shocked. Then, louder, "Kaylee. Where ... where is Kaylee?"

   "Taking a nap," she answered, getting back to work.

   "Taking a na—" said Mal, blinking and shaking his head. "Er, what ... what are you doing there—?"

   He approached.

   "As per Kaylee's instructions," she said Lenore, "I am fine-tuning the inertial dampener polarizer unit. It is desperately tedious work, so it's perfect for someone like me."


   Alarmed, he turned to look at what she was doing.

   The dampener coil was partially exposed, along with one strand of fiber trunk, which had been split at the end. Tiny, almost invisible fiber strands, lit at the ends, gave the impression of tiny stars floating next to the unit itself.

   "I have improved efficiency at this stage by 1.53093 percent, with only three percent of the fiber trunk realigned—"

   "Stop," he ordered, feeling immediately guilty for saying it so harshly. "Stop," he repeated, this time softly—softer. He noted the look of sweet curiosity on her face as she waited for him.

   "I appreciate ..." He was talking to a bot, he kept telling himself. A bot. "A nap, you say? In her quarters?"

   "Yes, sir," she said crisply.

   He turned to leave, turned back around. "Don't do any more work until I say so, okay? Just ... relax."

   A bot. It's a bot.

   "I will wait right here, Captain," she said cheerfully.


   He stood at the ladder leading down to her quarters. The hatch door was open.

   "Cap'n?" she called out. "What's wrong?"

   She appeared at the ladder, looking up at him.

   "Why is the love bot mucking around with my engine?" he shouted, pointing a stiff finger aft.

   She scaled the ladder before answering. “That’s a very interesting question,” she said with a dirty chuckle. When he didn’t laugh, she serioused up. "Ah, c'mon, Captain. She's aces in there—and she has a name. It's Lenore. Do you really think I'd let her do any harm to my engine?" She poked a finger into his chest.

   "As I recall, you were to find out what she knew about the Alliance, what Mr. Universe had told her, or uploaded into her ... or whatever!"

   "I bet he did a lot of 'uploadin' ' into her," chortled Jayne, coming around the corner. He leered.

   Mal ignored him. Kaylee shook her head.

   "Well?" demanded Mal.

   "She's got something, that much I've worked out.”


   "Problem is," she continued, "she's got a trust protocol. She won't tell us nothin' before she trusts us. I've tried, Cap'n, believe me. My poppa taught me the best way to earn trust is to give it, so I let her help me with the engine the other day. A quick tuner. She was brilliant. I started giving her more serious jobs, jobs that demonstrate that I trust her. I think it's helping ..."

   "Sounds like a big waste of time to me," commented Jayne. "I got me a big Bowie knife; let's just cut 'er open and dig out the info that way."

   "Yeah, murdering her will inspire all sorts of trust," said Kaylee flatly.

   "It ain't murder, she's a machine," he retorted.

   "In any event, I don't want her workin' on my boat without you telling me first!" said Mal.

   "Fine," grumbled Kaylee, who stalked off back towards the Engine Room.

   "Well, c'mon ..." she gestured, irritated.


   "You probably told her to stop workin' on the IDPU. You need to tell her to start again, or she'll just stand there like a statue. I told her your orders are top priority ... C'mon ..."

   "At least someone on this crew has got it right," he murmured, following her.

Lenore wouldn't reveal what Mr. Universe had locked behind the trust protocol until many months passed. Mal had begun entertaining the notion that there wasn't a trust protocol, nor was there any life-saving or potentially profitable information in her memory. He began entertaining notions about where he could ditch her.

   He was shocked when it wasn't Kaylee who informed him that the bot had revealed the Get Out of Jail Free card, but Jayne.

   And it was very much indeed a Get Out of Jail Free card.

Deader fed them macaroni and cheese. There were spare veggies from the last job on Greenleaf; she steamed up some asparagus and concocted something that tasted remarkably like butter to put on them. She seemed as cheerful as a grandmother doing all this, like she loved being in the kitchen and sharing in all the talk that went on there. They had all gathered in anticipation. Mal too.

   Deader was surprised when Lenore joined them for dinner. More surprises: Lenore had cleaned up and now wore a pink dress. Deader thought she caught the whiff of perfume on her. Lenore sat between Kaylee and Jayne. Jayne—who held the seat out for her and pushed it in when she sat. "Thank you, Mr. Cobb," she said. "You are such a gentleman."

   No one seemed shocked at this, or even lifted their heads to watch. Deader stared, astonished. Neither Lenore nor Jayne noticed.

   Yet another surprise: Lenore ate just like a human being. She made conversation as well, behaving, to Deader's estimation, just like any well-behaved young woman should. She couldn't keep from praising her, to which Lenore replied sweetly, "Why, thank you, ma'am. Kaylee and the others have been most helpful in learning human customs and mannerisms and ways of speech, Jayne especially."

   At that, Jayne beamed like a young schoolboy.

   "I know," said Mal, correctly appraising the disbelieving look on Deader's face. "It's enough to make you question reality."

   "I got me manners when I want 'em," responded Jayne in his own defense. "Just ain't no sense with most folk."

   The meal, Mal had to admit, as simple as it was, was delicious. He couldn't even tell the synthetic protein Deader had used to make the macaroni was such. Normally it tasted like unsweetened toothpaste. His new pilot made enough for everyone to have seconds. They must've felt like he did, because they all took them. He did, too.

   "I didn't have time to bake up a dessert," she offered. "Maybe tomorrow."

   It was a brilliant way to wiggle her way into everybody's hearts, he considered. Go through their stomachs. She told jokes and made friendly banter with everyone, even Jayne, who, with this meal, seemed to soften to her considerably. He even helped her clean up after. "Lemme help you there, Grandma," he said, gathering dishes.

   "You remind me of Bull," she said to him as they stood over the sink.

   "Who's Bull?" he asked, drying a plate.

   "Strongest damn hand we had. Could toss bails of hay over his head into the hayloft. Real name was Norman, but everyone called him Bull. Was a browncoat. Got shot up in the war."

   Dishes done, Jayne escorted Lenore back to her quarters (Shepherd Book's old digs, as it turned out) per her insistence. She still had work to do, she said, excusing herself politely, and wanted to change back into her work clothes.

   The others gathered in the bridge. Deader dropped into the co-pilot's seat and punched up the wagon. The holo of Lichungyun floated peacefully above the console. Jayne appeared soon after.

   "This is Lichungyun from two million miles," said Deader. "And this is Lichungyun at two million and one miles ..."

   She punched a button.

   The holo disappeared.

   The crew of Serenity gaped.

   "No gravimetrics, no light, no temperature readings, nothin'," said Zoe, who had leaned over Deader's right shoulder to peruse the data. "Like it isn't there. Like nothin's out there but empty space."

   "Remember, folks," Deader went on, "this is a world nearly twice the size of Earth-That-Was, making it easily the largest Earth-like world in this system that we or anyone else know of."

   "So it's being shielded," said Mal. He had to admit to feeling fascinated. "How? The Alliance doesn't have anything near the technology required to do something like that."

   "That's why we're going to Londinium," said Deader. "Our special passenger can tell you. He's a scientist. He, along with other Lichungyun scientists, have figured out how the Lens works."

   "The 'Lens'?" said the crew.

   "The device that shields Lichungyun from detection. It was discovered shortly after the first colonists landed." She turned and stared at Mal, then at the others. "A device that was made, believe it or not, by aliens."