The Falcon Banner - 13. Chapter 13
There is nowhere we would not venture, no foe we
would not confront. Though I fear the harder order he
may give us, is the one to abandon our own people.
God forgive us and protect those we cannot.
Go quickly my love.
-Captain Dominic Worth 'a final correspondence'
Darien settled into the pilot's chair, rolling his shoulders to get comfortable as he stared out of the front view port at the darkening Karin skyline. It had taken some effort, but the modifications to the ship were finished well ahead of schedule. It was as if his crew felt their captain's own need to be free and away from the planet, continuing on with their journey, wherever it took them.
There was no ceremony behind it; most of the crew had bunked down for the night, except for Elias, worried about his engines, who was wedged into the small engineering spaces keeping an eye on them. Darien lifted the comm. set to his ear, called Karin city control and acquired his takeoff clearance. He flipped switches to power up the thrusters and settled back and smiled.
The Raptor swept upwards, its mighty VTOL thrusters propelling it towards the dark sky. The landing gears folded up and into the body of the vessel as its wings folded down and locked into place. Once it had reached a suitable altitude, the main drives kicked in, and in a burst of speed, the ship reached escape velocity and burst from the atmosphere into the busy Commonwealth Space lanes.
He switched on their running lights, his hand arcing out to touch the controls, his eyes scanning his displays, ensuring he had a clear flight plan. The raptor agilely responded to his touch. He was impressed with what Elias had managed to squeeze out of the vessel; it still wasn't as manoeuvrable as the Dragonfly, but it was a vast improvement over the Amsus engineering.
He reached down to the navigational console between the two forward stations, inputting the first set of jump co-ordinates Walker had supplied him, eyeing the power gauges on the jump pods. They were ready to go, clear of the system and on their way at last, and for the first time they weren't being hounded every step of the way.
He activated the jump drive, the pods sliding clear of their protective hatches, glowing and crackling with the titanic energies required for them to perform their magic, and R-403 jumped effortlessly.
* * *
"How long till the next jump?" Lauren asked, coming forward to slip into the seat beside him, staring out of the view port at the desolate wasteland of the system they were traversing while the jump pods recharged.
"A few hours," Darien replied with a yawn. They'd been travelling for a few days, making steady progress through some of the most remote and barren systems the Apilon Rift had to offer. He was mindful not to overtax the jump pods; they were in the middle of nowhere on the edge of nothing, the last thing he wanted to do was suffer a mechanical failure out there.
There was a flash of light and Darien ducked his head down to spot Kendrick's fighter pulling another tight flyby of the Raptor as he streaked ahead, forming up into an advance position leading the way for the frigate.
"Someone's having fun," Lauren observed with a smile.
"He wanted to get out and stretch his wings for a bit," Darien shrugged. "If you ask me he's nuts, cooped up in that thing..." he shook his head at the small Tac-fighter that waggled its wings at them.
"It's all about freedom," Lauren stated with a soft smile. "If you think about it, he's been under his father's thumb for nearly thirty years, this is his chance to just... be his own man and not be tied down."
"True," Darien replied, resting his chin on his hand as he stared at the glowing engine ports of the fighter. "You two have been spending a lot of time together," he said with a teasing smile.
"Jealous?" she shot back turning to look at him.
"Nope," he said grinning at her.
"No, that's right, you have a certain someone keeping your bed warm at night," Lauren said innocently as he made to check her instrument panels, even though she was watching his reaction from the corner of her eye.
"It's not like that," Darien stated with a firm shake of his head.
"But you want it to be," Lauren said as a trilling from the rear sensor station caused both of them to turn. "What the?" Lauren asked getting up and moving back one seat.
Darien sat up and slipped on the comm. set, looking over his shoulder at her questioningly.
"We've got trouble," Lauren said getting up and hitting the ship-wide alarm.
A klaxon blaring through the ship caused its crew to look up from their bunks and side projects and stare blankly at where the noise was coming from. It took Shale cuffing the back of Nazzien's head to spur the Orion into action, the two charging forward, as Elias poked his head out of the engineering space.
"Uh, guys?" he asked, seeing no one.
Forward on the bridge, Lauren retook the tactical station as she looked to Darien, "We have a ship coming at us full tilt, it's trying to use the debris as cover."
"Intercepting us?" Nazzien asked taking the sensors and reading over the data. "Holy hot hell!" he exclaimed. "It's a destroyer by its size and its weapons are armed."
"Great," Darien stated tapping his comm. set. "Hey, Kendrick, are you reading this?"
"I am," Kendrick replied. "Do we stop and talk or do we make a run for it?"
"Are they running with a transponder?" Darien asked looking over his shoulder to Nazzien.
"Nope, they're in stealth mode," Nazzien stated. "Which means it wants to play with us."
"Commonwealth ship?" Darien glanced at Lauren.
"Most are pirates or privateers. Ships are fair game in open territory, there are no set rules; if you look like a target, they are going to use you as a target," she replied.
"Well, best not to look like a target, then," Darien responded grimly. "Power up the weapons, let's make it clear we see her."
"Perhaps I wasn't clear," said Nazzien, clearing his throat in the back. "That would be a destroyer, and this is an awfully small frigate."
"I heard you," Darien stated, tapping the power gauge for the jump pods; they were still recharging and it would be awhile yet before they could even think of jumping clear of the system. "I just don't want them thinking we're going down easy."
Lauren activated the new weapon systems, looking back at Shale and Nazzien. "I need you two back manning the turrets," she said firmly. "I don't want to play offence and defence at the same time."
Shale was up and moving back towards the auto-maser turrets but Nazzien hesitated, taking another look at the large destroyer bearing down on them. "This is such a bad idea," he murmured, shaking his head as he hurried to his turret.
"He's such an optimist," Darien said with a grim smile, activating the sensor screen on his displays. "You know, that is a big ship."
"You know what they say about men with big ships..." Lauren grinned.
Darien shrugged, pushing the Raptor's throttle to full and accelerating to flank speed. He reached up to the radio and switched it over to a broad channel, "Unidentified vessel, this is Captain Taine of R-403 out of the Karin system, what are your intentions?"
Lauren shook her head, "His intentions are to kick our asses, board this ship, kill everyone and steal our cargo."
"We don't have any cargo," Darien shot back.
"Pirate Pete over there doesn't know that," Lauren gestured to the destroyer on the sensor screen.
Darien rolled his eyes and thumbed the comm. channel again, "Unidentified vessel this is R-403, identify yourself or you will be fired upon."
"Oh, now that's a good idea," Lauren said sarcastically.
"Do you want to drive?" Darien said glaring at her.
"I'm just saying, it's probably not a good idea to provoke a ship that outguns us ten to one..."
"R-403," the radio crackled, "this is the Jakarta, Captain Ra'sha'gar speaking of the Jorten Syndicate. Tell me what an Hegemony military vessel is doing in Commonwealth territory."
'I boarded and seized her," Darien replied knowing full well that the Captain wasn't interested in the ship, for a petty blackmarket thug, Jorten's men packed serious firepower. "This ship is an independent vessel." He glanced at the sensor screens, the Jakarta was making no move to slow its interception, at the rate they were going it would be on them in twenty minutes.
"Then, Captain Taine, perhaps I should board and take it for myself." Ra'sha'gar sounded smug.
"Like hell," Darien replied, pushing the Raptor's controls, causing the ship to bank sharply away from the destroyer, Kendrick's fighter banking in perfect formation with them.
Darien reached up and switched the channel to the ship's intercom. "Hey, we need more speed up here," he called out.
Elias, in his engineering space looked up at the PA speaker in surprise. He picked up his radio and called back, "I don't know if you got a good look at the configuration of this ship, but those are 'outboard' engines, meaning they are 'outside' of the ship, and unless you want me scrambling across the hull with a monkey wrench in a space suit we don't have, this is as fast as she goes!"
Darien shook his head and took a quick look across at Lauren, "We're staying ahead of them for now, maybe we can outrun him long enough to let the jump drives recharge."
Lauren scanned her tactical readouts and shook her head. "He's driving us," she tapped a screen, "straight into that field of debris. If I was him I would have a group of marauder fighters waiting there."
"Fighters we can handle," Darien said with a smile, looking over the sensor readouts for the debris field, mostly asteroids and frozen gasses bumping together from a planet long since torn apart by the tidal forces of the system's fluctuating star.
"You're going through them?" Lauren asked him in surprise.
"I don't see why not," Darien replied, tapping the sensor screen with the pirate destroyer on it. "He can't follow us through a debris field, so he will have to go around; by the time we clear it we should have enough of a head start on him to get clear and jump."
"Best plan I've heard all day," Lauren admitted, settling in as the Raptor descended on the debris field and the waiting trap. She activated the tactical radar, switching it off when it returned jargon; there was just too much debris out there to get a clear idea of what they were dealing with. She turned and activated the Ladar system-what radar did with sound; Ladar did with low-powered lasers. The screens lit up with an almost accurate map of objects.
"Remind me to kiss Elias when I see him," she murmured, glancing up. "With your permission, that is, Skipper."
Darien shot her a look. "We're not like that," he fired back. "Ok, I am reducing speed..." he switched the comm. channel. "Kendrick, keep your eyes open..."
"Always do," Kendrick replied as the two smaller craft entered the debris field together.
Around the debris field, floating pieces of wreckage came to life. The twisted pieces of junk that had looked like nothing more than wreckage powered up. Lauren stared at her screens in disbelief as she looked over at Darien, "It's the space junk, they disguised their fighters..."
"Clever," Darien stated glancing at his readouts. "Here we go..."
The marauder fighters screamed through the debris field, their weapon ports open as they converged on the frigate and its lone fighter escort. Kendrick's fighter broke from its formation, sweeping low across the broad surface of an asteroid, opening fire on a pair of the ugly vessels. The fighter's rapid-fire weapons slammed into one of the marauders reducing it to molten slag.
R-403 rolled, Darien piloting the ship to avoid larger debris, its two auto-masers mounted on their turrets spinning up to open fire, the lancing purple beams filling the space about the Raptor with death. The marauders, sensing the danger broke their attack runs, spiralling away from the deadly rain of fire to regroup and rethink their attack runs.
"They didn't expect us to have that much firepower," Lauren said smugly as she sighted in the main plasma cannons, locking in and firing.
The larger double gun turret beneath the Raptor's belly swung out, turning to follow one of the marauders and spat a double bolt of superheated gasses, incinerating the fighter as it tried to break clear. The heavy slides rammed back on their pistons, cleaning the breach of the plasma cannons readying it to fire again a split second later.
"Nice shot," Darien complimented, watching the Raptor swat the fighter as if it were a bug. There were still five more out there, arcing about for a more co-ordinated attack run on the Raptor, as Kendrick continued to duel with his.
Darien swung the Raptor upwards around a cluster of asteroids, his HUD digitally enhancing the view through the view port, giving him ranges and collision indicators. He kept his mind focused on flying the ship-his crew could handle the fighters, he simply had to keep them moving through the asteroids long enough to get clear.
The five fighters dived on the Raptor again, their own weapons, modified laser cannons, hammering into its armoured hull, hoping to punch through armour plating to hit something critical beneath. Back in the engineering space, Elias instinctively ducked at the thumps on the hull over his head.
Nazzien and Shale swung their gatling turrets, taking aim and returning fire at the marauders that swept past their targeting scopes. Tracer fire caught and overtook one of the fighters, slicing it into pieces in a barrage of purple light. It died seconds later.
A warning trill from his HUD caused Darien to wince, a missile had been dropped; he looked about for the culprit, and saw that the destroyer, sweeping around the debris field, had decided to join the fight. He rolled the Raptor into a sharp dive towards a large cluster of asteroids and assorted debris, spinning the frigate as it careened into the tight gap between two of the rocks, the missile slamming into the rocks seconds behind.
The four remaining fighters curled around the asteroids coming about for another attack run as Lauren's hands glided over her console targeting in with the plasma cannons again. She took aim at a ball of frozen gases two of the fighters were sweeping around, the powerful cannons spat out another shot, vaporizing the cloud as it exploded over the two fighters; superheated, their fuel tanks detonated taking the pair out of the fight.
Kendrick's fighter streaked low over the bridge of the Raptor, its twin beam weapons decimating one of the two remaining fighters, as the last one fired feebly again, its shots hammering into the aft section of the Raptor, blowing through a hatch. Elias jumped back as sparks from the fried systems showered down upon him.
Darien felt the power die from beneath the stick as the Raptor's engines spluttered and went out. "Oh fuck!" he swore, watching the fighter arc for a final attack run. He pressed the stick again, trying to get anything from it, looking about him to see if the power had failed in other systems. Lauren was frantically trying to get her targeting system working, but the screen kept cutting out on her.
Back further in the ship, under flickering lights, Nazzien was swearing like a sailor vainly pressing the trigger of the auto-maser that was offline as well.
Darien stared up and out of the view port at the fighter that was closing on them, and swallowed-of all the lucky shots...
Kendrick's fighter spun into view, lifting on its VTOL thrusters blocking the path between the marauder and the Raptor. Its weapons hammered the alien fighter, smashing through its armour and shattering the ship before it could finish off the Raptor completely.
Darien heaved a sigh of relief as he tapped the comm. set. "Thanks," he breathed.
Kendrick bobbed his wings, repositioning the fighter to sit protectively over the frigate ready for any further attacks.
"I should get back there and help Elias," Lauren stated, unbuckling herself from her seat and clambering back along the length of the ship.
Darien turned to look at the flickering sensor display. The Jakarta was still out there, sitting at the edge of the debris field, holding its position, no doubt trying to figure out why R-403 wasn't moving. It wouldn't take them too long to realize what had happened.
The comm. headset warbled for his attention and Darien flipped it on, settling into his chair and looking up out of the view port at the destroyer looming on the edge of the debris field.
"Order your fighter to stand down, Captain Taine," Ra'sha'gar sounded angry, not surprising seeing as they had neatly dispatched all of his valuable fighters.
"I'm not going to order him to do anything of the sort," Darien replied, crossing his arms and frowning at the destroyer.
"You can't jump from inside an asteroid field," Ra'sha'gar stated flatly.
"And you can't bring your destroyer in after us so it looks like we're both stuck," Darien replied, angry at the pirate that attacked him. "The question is, what are you willing to do to get your hands on a ship that isn't carrying any cargo?"
The destroyer's missile racks unloaded a trio of missiles into the asteroid field, the heavy weapons curving through the debris and closing on the Raptor. Above it, Kendrick's fighter rolled, and effortlessly shot them down.
"Well, that proves that strategy pointless," Darien said into the comm. channel. "You're out of fighters, or else you would have launched them by now..."
"Surrender!" Ra'sha'gar spat out. "Or I will have your intestines splayed across my table!"
Darien reached out and shut off the radio silencing Ra'sha'gar's idle threats; it didn't look like the pirate would give up easily. He sighed as he un-strapped himself and walked back along the central corridor of his ship, passing Nazzien and Shale who both stuck their heads out of the turrets.
Darien nodded his head to them as he crossed the common room and clambered up the ladder into the engineering space. Lauren and Elias were hard at work as he rested a hand on the jump drives.
"What happened?" he asked quietly.
"They hit the access hatch protecting a power converter," Elias stated, searching through his tools on the workbench. "I can jerry-rig something that should hold, but we've got no power getting to the engines and weapons right now."
"And the jump pods?" Darien asked hopefully.
"They're still charging," Elias glanced up and smiled tightly. "Not much good inside an asteroid field, but still..."
"How long?" Darien asked.
"Two hours," Elias replied accepting the part Lauren handed him, "then full power."
Darien nodded, "How long till the jump drives are charged?"
"About the same," Lauren said, checking a gauge.
"Then I'm going to buy us some time," Darien stated, turning and dropping down the ladder to the deck below. He jogged back into the claustrophobic bridge and slipped into his chair, pulling on his headset. "Ok, Ra'sha'gar, what are your terms?"
"There are no terms," Ra'sha'gar replied through the radio. "You surrender and I don't kill you."
"My ship is crippled," Darien stated glancing at his instruments. "We're going nowhere and if we surrender we are going to have to be towed."
There was a pause, and then Ra'sha'gar purred into the radio, "I can arrange a salvage team to board your vessel; once it is secured they will tow it back to my ship." He sounded like a man who was confident in his victory.
"I'm ordering my escort to stand down, he'll let your salvage team approach... how long?" Darien looked down at the navigation console and pondered. They would need a place where they could slip away and even if they jumped there was nothing saying Ra'sha'gar couldn't follow them.
He pulled up the navigation charts Walker had supplied him for the old Imperial installations; glancing through them he found one within range and began inputting the co-ordinates into the jump computer.
"I am making the arrangements now, Captain," Ra'sha'gar said calmly. "Attempt no tricks, or I will use my full arsenal and turn your ship into scrap."
Darien left the threat hanging in the air as he fed the jump co-ordinates to Kendrick in the fighter. Kendrick bobbed his wings, to indicate he had received the coded message and understood it.
It would take Ra'sha'gar time to mount the salvage mission, especially from his position at the edge of the debris field. The pirate vessel was launching a couple of salvage shuttles that would drag the crippled Raptor clear of the debris field. He sat quietly while the vessels slowly manoeuvred away from their mother ship, slipping through the debris towards the Raptor.
Darien's eyes glanced at the clock, feeling the minutes trickling away; it was going to be close, and he just hoped Elias's two hours was a conservative estimate as he looked up and out at the shuttles bearing down upon them, their grapples armed and ready to snare their prize.
He slipped out of the pilot's seat and into the weapons console, his eyes drifting to the clock... "Come on... come on..." he breathed.
The power swept through the ship as the weapons systems reactivated, Darien swinging the ventral plasma cannons about, and discharging them. The first shuttle died not even realizing what hit it. The second swung wide as the plasma cannons slide cleared the barrel and the weapon recharged. Darien didn't hesitate; the second shuttle followed the first one as it too was sent to hell.
He jumped out of the seat as Lauren rushed down the length of the frigate, Darien already sliding into the pilot's seat as the engines came back to life. Ra'sha'gar's destroyer took a moment to react to the death of its two shuttles then began to unleash barrages of missiles and weapons fire into the asteroids not caring, he wanted the small vessel dead, and if that meant he had to destroy the entire debris field, so be it.
Darien slammed the throttle full open, R-403 shrieking through the debris at flank speed, Darien blinking back sweat as he tried to outrun the missiles while still navigating around the floating rocks. He held his breath, moving the controls as the Raptor swept one way and then the other, the missiles closing the gap on the vessel.
He reached out a hand, holding it over the jump controls, watching the power gauge as it approached fully charged. It wasn't going to be enough time... he needed more time... He slammed the activation, jump pods extending as the missiles zeroed in, and the power gauges hit maximum, propelling the ship to safety.
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