The Falcon Banner - 19. Chapter 19
"When I first saw the burned out shell of Excalibur, two hundred years in her grave, shattered and broken in the clouds of Neptune, a relic of a much more idealistic time, I could just imagine her, proudly slipping her moorings on her launch day, carrying with her the hopes of a generation of Humanity finally able to reach for the stars. Her running lights proudly depicted her name, Excalibur, for every eye to see. I wonder, if any who were present that day knew how pivotal a role that ship would play in the history of the our entire race."
They were going together. The second time Darien entered the monolith no one seemed willing to be left behind. Lauren had broken out a couple of the Raptor's survival vests, tucking a flashlight into one of the pockets and handing them out. Elias swam in his, the oversized vest looking bulky on his small frame, but he had already filled the pockets with every tool he could grab from the Raptor.
Nazzien and Kendrick were armed to the teeth-Amsus assault rifles, extra ammunition-like they were anticipating trouble. Darien didn't stop them, he had to admit there was something about the deserted Imperial constructions that made him feel uneasy, but he wasn't about to let his own paranoia show.
They had passed the burial chamber, its holographic ghost reciting a memory on an endless loop. Lauren stared at it, hearing the words from the long-dead Imperial, shaking her head as she digested them, and hurrying to catch up with Darien and the others as they pressed on along another corridor of names.
Shale seemed unusually pensive, the Taïrian marching purposefully behind them, occasionally shining his own flashlight into darkened nooks and crevices along the corridor. Not so much worried as cautious, and Darien didn't blame him.
The hatch before them stood closed. It was worked in the ornate black and gold of the rest of the monolith and cycled open at their approach, allowing them to step through into the Imperial ship's docking port.
Lights flickered and flared to life, dull gunmetal grey replacing the black as they moved into the ship. Their boots rang on deck plates as they walked towards the far airlock that would take them inside. Darien stared about him, taking a deep breath as he reached out to touch the airlock controls. The aged portal slid aside, and a rush of stale air greeted them.
The ship had sat for hundreds of years, tethered to the memorial, and Darien wondered if it was right to disturb it. He steeled himself as he led the way inside the ship, and once again stepped into the past.
He was instantly reminded of the corvette he had salvaged on Irulia, just on a grander scale. Everything seemed so utilitarian, and elegant at the same time. Heavy reinforced bulkheads, and internal armour packs made the corridor feel closer than it actually was. Dull, flat metal with its diagrams and coding numbers everywhere. It felt like a warship.
The lights shone upwards through the grilled floor, lighting everything, and casting its own shadows around the corridor, and Darien took a deep breath looking up and down the hall.
"Which way?" he asked, realizing that his hand was resting on the PKD's pistol grip. He needed to relax.
Lauren shone her flashlight in either direction, looking up to the colour coded lines painted on the ceiling, "On Orion ships we do this on larger ships so that people don't get lost."
Darien looked up at where she was shining the light, "Which one?"
"Gold," Shale said, shocking each of them to turn and look at the normally silent Taïrian. The big creature shrugged its large shoulder and pointed down the corridor that led towards the rear of the vessel.
Darien's eyes searched Shale's face for something beyond the quiet and unassuming confidence on his face, nodding simply. Taïrians just knew things, or more aptly they just remembered things so many others had forgotten.
"Then we follow the gold," Darien stated, setting out and down the broad corridor with his crew following behind as they worked their way along the length of the great ship. The doors to various different rooms were all standing closed, painted with the VonGrippen striking falcons mirroring each other on either door panel. There was little doubt they were on the right ship.
"Mech bay," Nazzien stated as they stepped out onto a broad catwalk high above a multi-tiered deck. Hulking armoured machines, all legs, guns and armour stood like silent sentinels lining the huge bay. The Archduke's honour guard, serving watch over his ship even after his death.
"They're huge!" Elias exclaimed as he stood at the rail looking down at the thirty-foot-tall machine.
"Infantry lance," Kendrick stated, "Marine support unit." He shook his head in awe, "Can you imagine facing one of those on a battlefield? It would tear through conventional tanks-hell, I don't think the Amsus have anything even close..."
Darien stared at the armoured sentinel, his arms crossed. "Giant robots..." he shook his head. "Overkill in my opinion. We should press on."
Nazzien tore himself away from the railing and shook his head at the skipper, "This is incredible."
Elias realized he was being left behind and quickly jogged to catch up as the crew pressed onwards through the heart of the ship. Darien was growing pensive. For all the technological wonders they were seeing, he was beginning to sense how out of their league they were. The basic understanding of how to fly a ship was one thing, but to try to operate an Imperial warship, and expect to be able to fight the Amsus? That was something else entirely.
They found their way into an elevator and began to ascend decks. Lauren looked at him as if she were thinking the same things he was. What they were planning to do, it was incredible, but Darien knew that they had little choice.
The elevator spat them out into another corridor, a small anteroom that connected to the bridge; there were several doors about them, and a heavy set of blast doors behind them. Darien took a deep breath, striding out onto the bridge of VonGrippen's flagship, the legendary Excalibur.
It was a broad deck, tiered with consoles and access panels, dark, grey and militaristic as the rest of the ship. It was from here VonGrippen had led his guard, fought the enemies of the Empire and wrestled with the guilt of his own betrayal.
The bridge was a CIC and bridge combined, a large situation table sitting at the rear of the bridge surrounded by glass plotting boards still detailing the fleet as they had formed up to defend the unnamed system. Another one painted the course the ships had taken through the Empire on their long retreat, charts and navigation tools sitting where they had been left by the crew when the final order to leave the ship had come through.
Darien moved through this, forward into the main bridge, its huge reinforced support braces adding to the feeling that the ship was built to withstand a lot of punishment. He leaned against it as he looked down at the lone chair standing facing the huge observation windows.
It was built as solidly as the rest of the ship, made of a rich dark blue material. It sat in a position that would have allowed the admiral to see anywhere on the bridge, a commanding perspective, a place where he, in turn, could always be seen. VonGrippen's great coat sat draped over the shoulders of the chair, the black and red coat that marked an Imperial Archduke, the Falcon insignias on the lapels glittering in the light.
"So everyone knows he intends to return," Kendrick spoke quietly coming around one of the lower tiers and looking up at the chair and his skipper standing beside it. "It's an old tradition."
Darien nodded thoughtfully, descending the two steps to join Kendrick on the main deck before the great observation windows. The rest of the crew were exploring around the bridge, Lauren already standing at the raised helm console. It was small, compared to what she had been expecting. She rested her hands on the pedestal-style console and jumped when holographic displays sprung to life.
"Three dimensional displays," she said sounding awed and bathed in a blue light from the displays hovering in the air around her. "The ship has auxiliary power. " She studied it reaching out to brush the display and it resolved to show her more details, "Gravitic drives..." she shook her head. "Some of this I recognize from theoretical models the Orions are working on," she tapped the display again, "but it's beyond anything I've seen so far."
"We have a full load out of weapon systems," Nazzien stated taking the pedestal on the opposite side of the bridge from her and watching the displays light up. "A full magazine of offensive and defensive missiles, beam weapons, drone fighters..." he shook his head. "The list goes on."
"Right," Darien stated, folding his arms behind his back. "I think we should take a look around the ship, find out as much as we can and meet back here in an hour?" He stared about him again at the bridge, "Figure out if we can actually fly this thing?"
"I'd like to see the engines, check some of the systems," Elias stated leaning on a metal rail towards the rear of the bridge. "It's been a few hundred years, there's bound to be a few things wrong with them; the sooner I get started trying to figure this thing out, the sooner I can tell you if we can use it."
Darien nodded, "Right..."
"I'll stay here," Lauren said, clipping a headset on and plugging it into her comlink. "Co-ordinate with the rest of you and try to work out the control interfaces."
Kendrick and Nazzien looked at each other and then back at Darien. "Fighter bays," they said in unison, sounding like schoolboys off in search of toys.
Shale grunted, shaking his head at them as he lumbered back towards the elevators, the crew splitting up and going off in search of their own objectives. Darien hesitated and turned to look through the windows along the upper hull of the ship towards the powerful weapons mounted in the bow.
"You're feeling what I'm feeling," Lauren said as she continued to study the controls. "Like we may have bitten off more than we can chew."
Darien shrugged, "It's a big ship, I can't help feeling intimidated."
"We could try something smaller," Lauren said stepping around the pedestal as the displays vanished, walking up beside him. "This is what," she squinted along the bow of the ship and then up at some of the larger ones around them, "a strike cruiser by the looks of her, mid-range command and control vessel. We could try for a destroyer, or something a bit more manageable."
Darien shook his head, "Kendrick had a point: it needs to be a ship that people will identify with if we're to have any hope of this. It has to be this one."
Lauren touched his shoulder gently. "Sit down," she said looking past him towards the chair.
He turned his head to look at it, and shook his head. "I can't," he said firmly.
Lauren pushed him a step closer to it, "A Terran hasn't seen the inside of a warship in hundreds of years; you are the closest thing we have, as an entire species, to a qualified starship captain. That is your chair now, sit down!" she barked the last bit like it was an order, and instinctually Darien crossed the deck, touching the arm of the chair reverently, swallowing as he turned and sat down, taking a long sharp breath as he did so.
Displays sprang up around him: sensor data, weapons data, he saw a diagram of the ship with his crewmembers moving through it. He was aware of the ship at that point, and he knew that it was aware of him. He jumped up, the displays vanishing as he did so.
"What?" Lauren asked him worriedly.
"...The ship..." he murmured looking about him and shivering. "I felt the ship."
Lauren frowned, "It could just be your imagination..."
Darien shook his head, "No, I know what I felt..." He took a deep steadying breath as he sat down again and was immersed in the ship.
He was aware of it, and it was aware of him. He could sense its presence as he stared over the displays. It was a strange symbiosis of thought. He could feel the ship was gauging him, like a living being, weighing and measuring him, trying to decide what it was it felt off him.
Darien sat rigid, his hands grasping the arms of that chair, his eyes darting about, aware that the ship was there, lurking just out of the edge of his vision.
"Relax," Lauren said, studying him intently.
Darien took another breath and forced himself to relax, his shoulders sagging as he felt his body press comfortably into the chair. "All right," he said aloud, addressing the ship. "You've had your look, what now?"
"Now I try to decide who you are," the ship replied, startling Lauren, who spun about, her hand going for her pistol.
"Captain Darien Taine," Darien replied simply. "And you are the Excalibur."
"Not precisely. " A hologram sprang to life, a man in his late twenties resolved, dressed in an Imperial fleet uniform, appearing slightly bookish with old-fashioned round spectacles that he seemed to constantly be trying to straighten, "I am a part of the ship, or more precisely, the ship is all of me."
Darien flashed a glance at Lauren, who was watching the ghostly holographic apparition with genuine concern.
"I am Commander Kit Durnham," the hologram announced. "I was the executive officer of this vessel when she was commissioned; the ship chose this template and my personality and uses me to interface with the crew."
"You're like an avatar of the ship?" Lauren asked cautiously.
"No," Kit replied, "I would be the user interface, Windows for a star ship..." He looked at her blank expression, "Dated humour, I see. You must forgive me, it will take me a while to get caught up." He turned affixing the man sitting in the command chair with a curious look, "Imperial uniform, captain's rank; however, you strike me as a little young, the ship would like for you to explain this irregularity."
Darien blinked; trying to follow what was happening as he shifted in the chair and stared at the commander. "The Empire was invaded," he explained after a moment.
Kit's face clouded, "Earth?"
"Conquered," Darien responded, "by the Amsus."
"The Amsus?" Kit replied shaking his head in disbelief. "The Amsus couldn't tie their own shoes without writing a manual first. The Amsus defeated the Empire?" Kit closed his eyes and shook his head, "I warned him, but then he seldom listened to anyone once he had an idea stuck in his head." The hologram opened its eyes, "The ship would like to know how you came to be here if the Empire has fallen."
Darien looked over at Lauren who smiled. "There's an Amsus Raptor docked at the far end of the Monolith," she said. "It contains a log recorder and a news archive; it should give you a lot of information about the current state of the universe."
Kit walked across the bridge to a bank of consoles, "Perhaps you would be so kind as to interface with your ship's computer and allow the ship to review the data in question?"
Lauren walked to the console that had activated. "How do I do that?" she asked glancing over the unfamiliar controls.
Kit smiled, "It's easy; I would do it myself but..." he passed his hand through the console, "as you can see I am incapable of doing so. Just follow my instructions."
Lauren tapped commands into the console glancing up as Kit smiled.
Darien felt the ship frown, a disconcerting experience, being aware of the cold steel around him as if it were alive. It had emotions, it had reactions, and it was angry...
He looked questioningly over at Kit, "What?"
Kit shook his head, "This is going to take some time to adjust to. This isn't the first time she's awoken to find everything different...."
"I don't understand," Lauren said leaning on the console and looking at the handsome features of the holographic man.
"Mmm," Kit nodded. "First VonGrippen, and now you. It is quite disconcerting for the ship, she was never designed to be inoperative this long." Kit sighed, "She wants to know what happened to the Admiral?"
"He's..." Darien's face fell, realizing this was going to be hard, "He's dead."
Kit's face grew sad, and Darien felt a wave of mourning pass through the ship. The hologram closed his eyes and muttered something that sounded vaguely like a latin prayer before he opened them again.
"I must inquire as to your purpose, Captain," he said over at Darien. "This is an Imperial Warship, but, without an Empire..."
Darien inclined his head. "I know... I..." he shrugged, "I want to free my people," he said straightening in his seat. "Go, find support, bring them back and field more of these ships...." He paused, "Are they all alive?" he asked in wonderment.
Kit shook his head, "No, just Excalibur, she is... unique." He looked up at the bulkhead above him, "We built her that way."
Darien nodded sitting forward and resting on the arm of the chair, "Then I am going to need help."
Kit smiled, "I think you already know what the Excalibur wants."
Darien smiled as he sat back into the chair, feeling the anticipation surging through the ship. She possessed an eagerness to return to civilization after centauries of isolation and exile to have a purpose again.
"Thank you," he said slowly.
Kit inclined his head, "I'm just a memory, it's not me you should thank."
Darien patted the arm of the command chair and looked about him, knowing the ship was as aware of his moods and feelings as he was of hers.
* * *
The commander was proving invaluable, explaining to the crew how the ship operated and what she was capable of. Elias had spent hours grilling the hologram on the intricacies of the ship's systems, learning as much as he could as quickly as he could. The ship used the small engineer to replace some of its systems that had degraded with age, taking great pleasure in educating someone who treated her like the grand lady she was.
Darien was standing in what had once been VonGrippen's stateroom. It was set at the far end of the bridge antechamber, through the set of heavy blast doors.
The room itself was tastefully decorated, in comparison with much of the rest of the ship. Large stern windows behind a broad desk looked out behind the ship at the panorama of space. The old Admiral had bolted an old brass telescope to the floor in one corner, for watching the stars from amidst the stars; there was something almost poetic in the idea. The rest of the room was done in dark oak panelling, books on shelves, and a pair of dark leather sofas sitting in the middle of the room sunk into their own recess. It was a place of contemplation, a place of reflection. It was a place that was uniquely VonGrippen on that ship.
Darien stood with his hands in his pockets staring across the room, feeling immediately comfortable in something he viewed as familiar. He felt as though he had come to know the man through his writings, come to understand him retracing his steps, and come to respect him sitting on the bridge of his ship. The stateroom was his inner sanctum, a place where the man had come to rest, to think, to plan and remember.
Darien crossed to the dark desk: black glass, like the monolith they were docked with, inlaid with gold. Papers and unread reports were strewn about it, and an old style logbook, heavier than the one from the corvette, sat in its pride of place beside a log recorder computer.
He touched it with his hand, opening its cover and looking at the entries made by the ships various masters. It seemed as though the Excalibur possessed a rich history that predated even the Empire, and Darien glanced up again out of the stern windows at the Imperial vessels hanging in space. That explained the difference in design.
He flipped through the pages, reading of how the ship had been launched, one of Mankind's first attempts at interstellar exploration, a vessel to reach out and touch the stars. He flipped onwards following the voyages of the ship under her first captain, Captain Taggart, and finding them cut short with no explanation.
Darien frowned as he turned the page and found a very different man had written the next series of entries. VonGrippen's handwriting detailed his finding the ship, and turned Earth's lost explorer into one of the Empire's finest warships. His thoughts and reflections on her. Darien skimmed across years of history, of missions-it was a log of VonGrippen's rise from a mere captain to Warlord of the Empire. He flipped ahead, turning to a blank page and reached out to pick up a pen.
He wondered what he should write, what words would really sum up the torrent of emotions and confusions that were tumbling through his mind at that moment. He sat down in the chair, pulling the book in front of him as he began to write, explaining how he had come to be there, putting pen to paper. He felt that he somehow owed something to the history of the ship, a new chapter in its life.
The doors slid open and Lauren looked over at him writing, "Kendrick just got back. It took some tight manoeuvring but he docked the Raptor to the Excalibur's aft courier deck on the dorsal hull; she's all secure and he and Shale are unloading our belongings now." She frowned, "What are you doing?"
Darien shook his head, taking off his glasses, "I found the ship's log book; it didn't seem right, given all the history this ship's had to just ignore it, I thought I'd update it."
Lauren smiled shaking her head. "You are a very complicated man, Skipper," she said folding her arms. "I hope you put something good in there about your first mate."
Darien smiled at her, "I always write good things about my crew." He set the pen down and stood up, "How are you coming along with the ship's navigation controls?"
"They're complicated," she admitted. "But Kit assures me they'll get easier once I get used to them."
She and Darien walked back towards the bridge, the young captain smiling as he saw Elias leaping over a rail to catch them.
"This ship is awesome!" he stated enthusiastically. "Its jump engines are like nothing I've ever seen. They take next to no time to recharge, they just draw directly off of Zero point energy like the jump gates. She has shields, and..." he shook his head. "It's amazing."
Darien nodded as he patted Elias on the shoulder, "Good to hear; once everything is stowed away from the Raptor I want to head back to get underway."
Lauren smiled, "If that's the case, I'd better get working on plotting a course."
Darien nodded as he came around to the front of the bridge and rested a hand on the command chair of his ship.
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