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    Topher Lydon
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental. Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

The Falcon Banner - 20. Chapter 20

Weary wanderers wonder wistfully would worship work?
Wise women worked wishes, willing worthy warriors well.
While we wait, watching...

-Anonymous 'Polian Poem'

HMS Excalibur

The Excalibur clipped smoothly through space, her proud bow cutting through the void as she charted her way across the deserted system. Beneath her heavy armour plates the dark alien crystal that lined her superstructure glowed with the same inner light the monolith had possessed, and the ship moved unlike anything that had been seen in a long, long time. She was a proud testament to the height of the Empire, a chilling reminder to its enemies that the past would never be forgotten.

She banked to starboard, her bridge superstructure leaning in as she came about, her engines sliding her forward as she cruised. Her jump pods powered up in moments, catapulting the ship to the next system.

Darien sat pensively in the command chair staring up at one of the holographic displays that shimmered to life the second they entered the system. Real time data fed to it from its impressive sensor package, highlighting the navigational features of the solar system they had just jumped into, the Commonwealth ships navigating from the populated worlds, plying their cargos and traversing the commercial shipping lanes. He wondered how the Excalibur must look to them.

"Captain, we're receiving a hail from a starship under a Commonwealth flag," Kit reported, turning from where he stood watching over Lauren as she piloted the graceful vessel. "It's the freighter Torpei out of the Yager system."

Darien straightened up in his chair as the displays before him changed to show the small Commonwealth freighter, armed to the teeth like most of them were, angling to intercept them and cover the smaller ships that were pulling closer together to form a protective convoy.

Darien stood up as the displays faded and a larger screen materialized before the observation windows, "Commonwealth vessel this is..." Darien took a deep breath, "the HMS Excalibur, en route to the Karin system on Imperial business."

There was a pause and the voice of the freighter captain sounded suspicious, "Is this some kind of joke?"

Darien shrugged as he straightened up, "This is Captain Darien Taine, and I assure you this is no joke."

Darien watched as the range data on the main display showed that the Torpei was entering the range of a visual inspection. Darien glanced behind him, "Lauren slow us down enough to let him take a good look."

Lauren's hands glided over the controls and the Excalibur slowed down as the freighter drew near. She looked up and smiled, "You're showing off your new toy."

Darien smiled as he looked back at the display, "Freighter Torpei, you may stand down your weapon systems; as you can see, if we bore you any hostile intentions..."

"My god!" the freighter captain breathed into his radio. "Is that really...?"

"I think that's enough of a look for now," Darien stated, turning and walking back up to his chair. "Let's put a bit of distance between us and get underway again."

Lauren shook her head. "You were showing off," she murmured as the Excalibur accelerated to cruise away from the Commonwealth vessel. It wouldn't take long for the jump engines to reach full charge again. The trip back to Karin was already taking them a fraction of the time it had originally.

He was still giving the crew time to settle in. Elias was off exploring the endless conduits and access tubes through the bowels of the ship, a seemingly endless list of repair tasks that he was only too happy to fulfil, much to Kit's and the ship's pleasure.

Kendrick and Nazzien were like kids in a candy store-if it was Imperial, and it had a military purpose, they wanted to learn all they could about it. Darien was worried one of the other would fire up one of the Mechs in the bay and try to take it for a test drive. He was lucky; so far they seemed content to play with the fighters and drones, or the personal weaponry they had come across.

Shale had seemed remarkably reclusive; he had found himself a set of quarters and seemed content to remain there for much of the voyage. Darien had seen him briefly, but decided it was best to let the stoic creature alone. He appreciated all the Taïrian did, but was growing worried about him.

Darien left the bridge, riding the elevator down to the crew quarters. These were empty rooms with their shadowy memories, each standing open, glimpses into the past lives of people long since gone. Darien had tried to avoid exploring them too much; he had been content to let them be.

He found Shale's quarters, standing a moment outside the door, knowing that it would announce his presence automatically if he hesitated long enough. The twin interlocking doors slid open on the darkened room, and Darien stood in the square of light peering inside.

Everything in the cabin was oversized, from the chairs to the ceiling, designed purposefully with a Taïrian in mind, and Darien reflected on that a moment. In the Empire the Taïrians had been full equals, afforded all the rights of full citizens. Having grown up inside the Hegemony, Darien had just assumed that was another way of saying they had been a servitor race. It sank in at that moment that the Taïrians hadn't served the Humans, they had served alongside them.

Darien entered the room, looking towards where Shale sat cross-legged facing the bed, his back to the Captain. Darien noted the uniform Shale was wearing was new and that it fit him better, like it had been cut specifically for him.

Darien approached quietly, not wishing to disturb Shale, and looked down at the bed, at the Taïrian remains that lay there, and suddenly Darien understood why Shale was so reclusive. To Taïrians, death was a sacred event, one that should never be experienced alone, and Darien found himself kneeling alongside his crewman, feeling for the pain and anguish Shale was going through, mourning a long lost brother who had died alone.

Darien sat quietly for what must have been an hour, staring at the bed and the remains. Had he died before or after the Human transcendence? Had there been an attempt to take him with them? Had they succeeded? Darien swallowed and turned to the creature he had come to feel was his friend, resting a hand on the broad shoulder.

"Is there anything I can do?" he asked quietly.

Shale turned his head staring at his captain, a look of gratitude in his eyes. "Home," he said gruffly.

Darien nodded, "Yes. We'll head there as soon as we are done with Karin."

Shale offered a small nod. He unfolded his legs and reached out to pull the blanket up and over his dead brother, taking a deep breath and smiling at Darien in thanks.

* * *

Darien tried on the fleet uniform, tugging down at the tan shirt with its red shield and sword patches, and trying for the hundredth time to tie the black tie. It just made sense that he wear something more fitting than the combat fatigues, but try as hard as he liked he felt he didn't look right in the uniform.

He stood staring at himself in the full-length mirror adjusting the tie again, and trying to seat the collar. He shook his head in frustration.

"What's wrong?" Elias asked, looking up from the technical manual he was working his way through, wrapped in Darien's afghan from the old Dragonfly.

Darien shook his head as he sat down on the edge of the bed. "This is going to be hard," he said quietly.

Elias looked at him and reached out to retie the tie, smoothing out the collar perfectly and brushing down the lines of the shirt. "Something's missing," he stated, getting off the bed and walking to a set of drawers and returning a moment later. He flipped open the small black case and affixed the silver captain's eagles to either collar, straightened them and looked up. "That's better."

Darien smiled as he looked into Elias's sapphire eyes. "What is it?" he asked quietly.

Elias smirked, "You look like a dashing young starship captain, and I was just thinking I don't do damsel in distress very well..."

Darien smirked, "Actually, you do it very well..."

Elias thumped him, moments before Darien pulled him into a tight embrace. Both men were startled by the instinctual motion, but it seemed so natural for Elias to be in Darien's arms, the engineer slipping his legs over to straddle Darien's lap and stare deeply into his hazel eyes.

Darien coughed nervously, smiling weakly as he leaned tentatively forward, his lips brushing Elias's gently.

"D-don't..." Elias murmured, closing his eyes and knowing full well it was too late as he pressed his lips against the other mans, the two of them exchanging a simple kiss that both so desperately craved.

Darien pulled back as Elias opened his eyes and leaned in again this time to lick the tip of Darien's nose.

"Eww!" Darien winced brushing the back of his hands against the wet spot.

Elias blinked, "Eww? I finally get a kiss and you go eww?"

"I'm not ewwing about the kiss," Darien said, "The nose thing..."

"I like your nose," Elias replied bouncing around to get comfortable while still holding onto Darien for balance.

"Ok... watch it, your butt's all bony," Darien grinned as he tried to relax. He still wasn't used to the physical proximity, it was different when they slept, it wasn't so direct, this was... He had Elias in his arms then because he wanted him there.

"You should go on duty." Elias reminded, reluctant to give up the new found moment of intimacy, but if it went much further then...

Darien stood up, still holding the small Engineer in his arms, Elias instinctively wrapping his legs around Darien's waist clinging to him. "Ok... this is going to make... it difficult." Darien huffed taking a step forward, the little limpet refusing to budge.

Elias grinned and let go, dropping to the deck with a thud, laughing as he picked himself up. Blushing a moment bright red as he leaned up to kiss Darien again. "Good morning Skipper..."

* * *

"So tell me," Darien stated, drinking from his mug of coffee staring over the helm controls of the Excalibur as he executed a tack that would steer the ship around an asteroid. Most of the crew were sleeping, leaving their captain to stand watch. Elias was sitting on the edge of a raised tier idly tinkering with something and the hologram was keeping its dutiful watch over the controls to ensure there were no mistakes.

"And what is that, Captain?" the commander asked.

"Why did the ship choose you as its interface?" Darien stated, taking a drink and glancing at the other man.

Kit grew quiet, looking down at the deck, "I was the first officer aboard the ship for its commissioning trials, I was the one who first tested the ships AI systems and so we grew very close. It was very difficult to teach the AI; true, it had plenty of programming to fall back upon, but no one had actually explained to it why all these rules were in place, what its purpose was." He folded his arms, "I was the first person to treat the ship like an equal, and unfortunately after the accident she had no one..."

"Accident?" Darien asked wondering if he should be prying that closely into the AI's past.

Kit nodded, "We were an exploration vessel that used a completely different design of jump drive; we could go farther than anyone else, see more of the universe than mankind ever thought possible. Excalibur was moving out past Neptune to perform another jump test. She remembers that Captain Taggart engaged the drive."

"Something went wrong?" Darien asked setting his mug down.

"She awoke with VonGrippen sitting in the command chair, his salvage crew repairing her damaged systems. She awoke confused, injured and amidst strangers. She tried to communicate with VonGrippen, but the man hadn't been trained to... understand her innate language." Kit shrugged, "She was desperate to understand what had happened to her. She accessed her memories, used the same control interface you use for the displays and created the first image she could think of: me."

Darien nodded, "Yet you're distinct from the ship."

"She had enough records of me in her memory banks to recreate me as best she could. She needed to communicate with VonGrippen and so did so the only way she knew how, through me." He shrugged, "I'm an AI within an AI."

"What happened?" Darien pressed.

"To the crew?" Kit shrugged, "We don't know. VonGrippen had his ideas, he thought there had been a failure with one of the ship's power converters that blew out and shut down the entire ship." Kit shrugged, "It will forever remain a mystery I fear, but VonGrippen had an idea to rebuild the ship. He spent a long time with the ship giving it access to historical databases, teaching it about the Empire, its rise, its politics..." Kit shook his head, "So much time lost, she was frightened, but he was like a father to her, caring for her, making her strong again."

"I read in his logs," Darien replied. "He loved this ship."

"The man had just lost his wife and son and he was struggling to raise his grandson alone in an Empire teetering on the edge of insanity." Kit shrugged, "She needed him to give her a purpose, and he turned her from a derelict explorer into a warship. The Emperor, before his ascension, once dubbed her 'the Pride of the Empire'."

"That must have been quite a day," Darien stated, activating the controls again and turning Excalibur back to her original course as they steered around the asteroid.

"She was very proud; the Emperor was a good man and a wise leader, but after his ascension..." Kit shook his head, "The bishops and clerics gained power, using him as a religion to cement their rule..."

"Until VonGrippen said no," Darien said.

"He obeyed at first. He had served the Emperor loyally and so continued to serve the Empire, but it was no longer the same Empire, and when he refused to lead their jihad, they made Kardiac their champion." Kit sighed, "So much time has gone by..."

"The Amsus," Darien agreed.

Kit snorted again, "The Amsus toppled the Empire-it would be almost laughable if it wasn't true. They always hated Humanity's capacity to outthink and outfight them. Our technology was better, our strategies were better, and when they realized that we wouldn't back down they had no choice but to sue for peace." Kit shook his head.

Darien stared up and out of the observation windows, "Well, given a little time and a little luck, they'll sue for peace again." He smiled at the hologram, "So what does she like to do for fun?"

Kit turned to his new captain, "Fun?"

"Yes, fun," Darien said wryly. "Relaxation, what does she enjoy?"

"I..." Kit adjusted his glasses, "she always enjoyed racing..."

Elias's head snapped up, "Oh no...come on... I just fixed..."

Darien smiled as he opened the speed display and slammed the virtual throttle open on the Gravitic drive. The Excalibur surged ahead, accelerating beyond one half light speed, her engines cutting loose as she galloped.

Darien kept his eyes on the displays, angling the ship's course, correcting its trim, allowing her to guide him to tell him what she needed. This wasn't about master and ship, it was about the synergy that passed between them; he felt what she needed and his hands darted across the controls.

She curved in skimming the atmosphere of a gas giant, weaving in and out of its moons, Darien grinning as he felt the surge of joy come from the ship. She had become used to sitting at rest, tethered to her pasture on the edge of nowhere. Darien had spent time on his uncle's farm as a boy, and he knew horses were bred to run.

Commonwealth ships scattered as the large, fast ship shot passed them, its Imperial colours and VonGrippen family sigil resplendent on its hull. She was a thing of beauty, a lady born to dance amongst the stars.

Darien powered her engines back and looked over at the commander, "Tell her, that was fun."

"She knows," Kit replied returning the smile. "She knows."

* * *

"We should make Karin in a few hours," Lauren stated from across the table where they had gathered in the large mess hall for breakfast.

Darien had thought it odd that they had chosen the large empty hall to gather in. It had been designed for a much larger crew, but somehow not using it felt wrong. They had collected around one of the tables, each with their own breakfast tray and plate full of eggs.

It had been Nazzien's turn to cook, a tradition left over from R-403, and Darien poked his runny eggs wondering if they had eggs on Orion, and if they did what they were supposed to be mixed with to be edible.

Elias watched him and began to giggle realizing what he was thinking.

"How exactly are we going to do this?" Kendrick asked reaching out for more bacon and adding it to his plate. "With von Karin?"

"I trust the man," Darien stated flatly, Lauren nodding in agreement. "He helped us find the lost fleet, it's only fair I tell him what we found and include him in what's to come. He's the last remaining Imperial Archduke, he would add validity to what we're trying to accomplish."

"He's been very vocal in supporting you," Nazzien agreed cleaning his hands on a towel as he came to join the others at the table. "Plus, we can't crew this ship alone; we're going to have to recruit a crew, and given our options Karin's probably our safest bet."

Darien shook his head, "I'm not bringing aboard a group of cutthroats, pirates and slavers."

"No," Kendrick said in agreement gesturing with his fork. "But he does have a corps of loyal guardsmen. If you can get a company or two of them, maybe some pilots for the assault fighters we have in our hanger bay, I might be able to get you a wing of fighters in a couple of weeks."

Lauren, who was notably avoiding the questionable eggs wrapped her hands around her mug of coffee. "I agree with Kendrick; a couple of companies of Karin guards and then we can screen potential crew members from the Karin ports-there are good mercenaries out there..." She looked at Darien, "So long as you are lucky in who you pick you might find a few that can impress you."

"Repair drones," Elias chimed up. "A couple of engineers and some repair drones and I can keep this ship running. The advantage is the ship's hull armour is fluidic..." He stopped and shrugged, "The ship's outer hull is made up of nano-robots, trillions of them, the ship's AI anticipates where a shot will hit and it tells these robots to..." he interlocked his hands, "bunch together and the hull gets harder in those areas. That's if a shot can get past the shields."

Darien nodded, "All right, we'll spend some time on Karin. We're going to have to recruit and train new crew members on ships systems," he glanced at Shale, "then we have a promise to keep."

Shale nodded his striped head as he ate the eggs, seeming to enjoy them.

* * *

The Excalibur slid out of its last jump and into total chaos.

Commonwealth ships, spiralling like disturbed bees, were trying to protect the planet from the Amsus battle group closing on the planet. The frantic reports from the comm. chatter did little to explain the situation beyond the fact that the Amsus were pressing a full-scale assault. Their troop transports hung back under the protective eyes of missile destroyers while the larger capital ships and Raptor Wings tore into the smaller Commonwealth ships.

Darien sat upright as tactical alerts began to resound, his displays lighting up with tactical data feeding him information about what was going on. Lauren looked up at him as he studied the data, Kendrick and Nazzien running out onto the bridge to take their places beside the tactical pedestal.

Darien stood up and descended to the 'quarterdeck,' his hands behind his back as the started to pace. If he pressed an attack, unprepared, under-crewed, he would be inviting disaster. But if he did nothing one of his only allies would be faced with invasion.

He turned and marched back to the chair, sweeping the black and red Imperial great coat from the shoulders of the chair and draping it about his own shoulders. "Commander, General broadcast." He glanced at Lauren, "Bear down on those transports."

Lauren nodded; Nazzien and Kendrick stared at each other but complied as Darien faced the screen.

"This is the HMS Excalibur, this is Imperial territory and you are attacking one of our worlds." His voice resonated like iron as he stood staring at the display screen before him and the battle raging there.

The screen flickered and changed to show Archduke von Karin standing in his fortress, guard members running to and fro. "Captain Taine," he said with a smile that curved his lips, "I told you to bring some hope, I didn't expect you to take me seriously."

Darien nodded his head. "I made you a promise, your grace," he smiled, "but they appear to be ignoring me-I think I need to get their attention."

He turned looking at Nazzien who shook his head in wonder. "You're insane, Skipper," he said, powering up the Excalibur's weapon systems.

"When we're in range of those transports, vaporise them," Darien ordered.

"I wish you luck, Captain," the archduke stated with a formal incline of his head.

"The missile destroyers are coming about, they've spotted us," Kendrick stated.

"Defensive batteries stand ready with countermeasures." Darien looked at Nazzien, "You may fire when ready."

Nazzien shrugged and depressed a control.

Excalibur's Zero point bore fired. The ship tapped into energy at the quantum level, drawing it literally from space itself and accelerating it along a focusing crystals down towards the blade like point of the bow of the craft, firing it out in a concentrated beam that smashed through one of the transports, tearing it asunder. It ripped out the far end of the craft and demolished one of the missile destroyers unlucky enough to be caught in the path of the blast. Both ships detonated in gouts of flame.

"I repeat," Darien said turning to the screen. "This is the Imperial starship Excalibur, I am Captain Taine, and that was my warning shot."

There was tension in the air as everyone held their breaths collectively, watching, waiting, hoping that Darien's bluff would hold. The Excalibur continued to bear down on the surprised Amsus vessels.

There was a flicker and the screen resolved to show the interior of an Amsus battleship; a man dressed in the unremarkable uniform of an Amsus fleet commander stared at him. "The Empire is dead..."

"Target that ship," Darien ordered, meeting the cold stare of the Amsus commander. "I would like to demonstrate exactly how dead the Empire really is."

"Targeting lead Amsus Battlecruiser," Nazzien stated, incredulity in his voice. Darien was insane, to tackle a battle group alone, with just one ship, one that lacked the capacity to fight properly...

The Amsus flinched, and the screen flicked off as they cut the transmission.

"They're running," Nazzien stated, his voice sounding awed. "They're tucking tail and running..."

The Amsus, with their superior numbers and superior firepower were indeed pulling back. In the face of an attack by a lone Imperial vessel they chose instead to withdraw and reconsider their options.

Darien smiled a cold smile as he climbed the steps to his command chair. His gamble had worked, and he had bought them at least a little time.

Behind him, on the display the Amsus vessels leapt collectively to hyperspace.

Copyright © 2011 Topher_Lydon; All Rights Reserved.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental. Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 
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This is a wonderful SciFi novel that reminds me of Asimov's The Foundation Trilogy and Heinlein's Starship Troopers.  @Topher Lydon, Thank you for this well written story that I am enjoying.  It is compelling and has a great cast of characters.  This chapter especially reminded me of my youth spent reading novels by the two author's I mentioned.  I will definitely be writing a review when I finish this great story.

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And Hell rode in with him.  Can one ship and one Captain make a difference, it depends on the ship and the man in the uniform.

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I loved it!!! It would have been nice to send a few more Amsus off to see their creator...but that day will come!!

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