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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 - 26. Chapter 26

In a game of cat and mouse it is better to be a dog.

-VonGrippen 'Meditations'

HMS Excalibur

It was a magnificent sight, Excalibur slipping her moorings as she pulled away from Eisenhower station, her running lights glistening proudly. The triumphant champion was setting out once again to do her duty and a couple of smaller frigates and support ships formed up to give the Imperial Flagship a proud send-off.

Darien stood on the quarter deck back in his more relaxed everyday uniform, his hands balled behind his back as he stared down the length of his warship, readying himself mentally for the long journey ahead of them.

The Jump Nexus beckoned, and through it a new challenge. He wondered if he should say a few words to his crew and he glanced behind him to Lauren manning the helm watching him expectantly.

"Commander, ship-wide if you please," Darien stated glancing towards the hologram.

Kit looked distant a second then smiled and nodded to his captain. Darien glanced about him at the faces watching him and nodded, "As of o-nine-hundred this morning the HMS Excalibur departed Eisenhower Station, her destination... Earth." He smiled at the few whoops he heard echoing around the command centre, "There are people counting on us to make it, to find support and to keep pushing until we achieve the one thing we all want, a free Earth as the Capital of our new Empire." He glanced at Lauren, "VonGrippen himself can once be quoted as saying 'Excalibur was the Pride of the Empire,' let's prove him right." He nodded to his officers;"The order is 'helm set a course for the Kree Jump Nexus, all ahead one third.'"

The Excalibur accelerated through the escorting ships, pulling ahead of them gracefully as they began to turn back to the station. Darien turned to face the Jump Nexus as the mighty Imperial warship crossed the threshold and leapt across the galaxy.

* * *

The Excalibur decelerated into the Eelim Enclave, passing the jump threshold as she steadied her course, the twisted shapes of Eelim ships suddenly springing to life as they converged on the ship that emerged from their jump gate. Surprised at the sudden appearance of a vessel that was undoubtedly a warship they shrieked to take up defensive positions, training weapons on the strange vessel.

"Captain?" Nazzien asked, his hand hovering over the activation controls for the ship's weapon systems.

"Not yet," Darien stated, firmly folding his arms and staring up at the small ships swarming around the Excalibur, buzzing its hull taking a closer look. "They're trying to figure out who we are and why we're here."

Kit materialized at his captain's shoulder, "Sir, you realize that we have no common language with the Eelim; if they perceive us as a threat they will open fire."

Darien smiled. "Signal them," he ordered, returning to his command chair and sitting down.

Kit stared at him a moment, adjusting his glasses and trying to work out what his organic captain was up to trying to talk to creatures that had no common frame of reference to work from.

The display screen sprang to life showing the small bird-like lizard in a cramped cockpit; it stared at the Terran in his command chair staring back at him and began a series of whistles and clicks, punctuating the 'words' with claw gestures.

"Demanding to know who we are," Darien stated glancing at the hologram. He stood up, "I am Captain Darien Taine..."

There were more whistles followed by a series of angry clicks, the Eelim scratching its beak as it tried to express itself clearly.

"Jump drives?" Darien asked glancing over at Lauren.

"Nearly charged, Skipper," she replied, keeping an eye on the monitor gauges.

"He's not happy," Major Mayfair commented coming forward from where he normally lurked back in the CIC. He rested a hand on the support brace and stared at the alien on the screen, "Perhaps if we invite him over for a pint?"

"I don't think it's a he..." Lauren commented. "Jump drives 98 percent charged."

Darien leaned forward in his chair and smiled pleasantly, "I am going to cut through your space," he explained politely to the creature on the screen, "staying as far away from your people as I can and running as fast as I can..."

The creature whistled again, a low warning as the screen cut out.

"So much for a friendly drink," Mayfair stated.

"They're attacking," Kit stated, nodding upwards as the Eelim ships began to dive at the intruding warship.

"Now, Mister Nazzien," Darien stated nodding to the weapons officer.

Excalibur's pinpoint weapons activated as she began to return fire as the swarm vessels broke like a tide, hammering the Excalibur with small weapons fire. Excalibur was not amused; Darien blinked as he picked up on the ship's emotions, shaking his head to clear it as he focused.

"We're absorbing the weapon fire..." Nazzien stated. "It's not penetrating the armour..."

"A thousand small cuts can still kill a man," Mayfair said derisively.

"We have full power to the jump drives," Lauren replied.

"Jump!" Darien commanded as the Excalibur leapt from the Kree Jump Nexus, deeper into the Enclave's space.

As she returned to normal space, Lauren pushed the Gravitic drives to full power as moments later the Eelim swarm burst from hyperspace in hot pursuit. The Excalibur, pursued by a swarm of small ships intent on pecking it to death, swept through space, its crew repairing the relatively minor damage the Eelim had managed to inflict upon them as the Excalibur's engines put distance between it and the small vessels.

"Annoying little buggers," Mayfair commented.

"True," Darien stated, "but I'll feel safer once we've put a few jumps between us and that swarm."

Lauren shook her head, "If you think that's bad, I once heard that they tore a trade-liner to pieces with a million of those little ships. It's like kicking over an ant's nest."

"Anyone bring raid?" Kit murmured shaking his head. "Excalibur would greatly appreciate not being dragged through that again."

"Wouldn't we all," Darien responded checking his watch. "We should be good to jump in a couple of hours; until then, we should keep on this heading running at flank..."

"Boldly running away, aye Skipper," Lauren replied with a smirk as the Excalibur pressed onwards, slipping further ahead of the ships pursuing her. Darien got up from his chair and stepped down to the quarterdeck to begin to pace, his eyes darting to the clock.

* * *

The Excalibur was into her eighth consecutive 'hard jump' Elias shaking his head looking at his engine readouts, and the strain the constant jumping was putting onto their engines. They were designed for tactical manoeuvres and to allow rapid transit, but with the Swarm still hotly pursuing them across system after system it was proving too much strain even for the Excalibur to handle.

He walked around his engineering displays and caught up to Darien who hadn't rested in the sixteen hours they had been running from the Eelim, "I can give one, maybe two more jumps, but beyond that..." he shook his head.

Darien glanced worriedly at the young engineer and up at the screen; they were a good four hours ahead of the Eelim, who seemed able to keep up with the Excalibur's rapid movements through hyperspace. He'd underestimated their jump capabilities and he needed another option.

The Eelim would be entering the system they were in in a few minutes, continuing to hound the alien trespasser with murderous intent. He glanced at the system, a desolate place with a cold brown star and frozen debris fields scattered about it. He made a snap decision.

"Helm, alter course, take us into the closest debris field." He walked around to stand beneath the great windows, "We need to give the jump pods time to cool off and maybe we can give them the slip."

Lauren complied. The Excalibur's engines slowed as she nosed her way into the field, pushing ice fragments aside with her shields and nudging them away from her hull. She slipped deeper into the clouds of frozen dust particles slowing further and eventually shut down her drives altogether.

"Power down the ship," Darien ordered, "and keep life support and our sensors operational..."

Kit shook his head, "It won't be enough, they might be able to detect our electro-magnetic field if we keep systems powered up."

Darien chewed on that for a moment, nodding, "Power it all down."

"You're shutting off life support?" Nazzien asked incredulously.

"Excalibur's oxygen comes from an organic not an artificial system," Kit replied. "Big vats of algae are growing under the deck plates you're standing on. The only problem will be heat-it's going to get very cold in here. You need to shut everything down, me as well..."

"Do it," Darien nodded to Elias, the young engineer shivering involuntarily as he began to shut down the Excalibur's power systems systematically. Lauren and Mayfair walked to the emergency supply lockers and activated the portable lanterns, spreading them about the deck as the lights began to go out.

"I'm going to distribute arctic gear to my marines," Mayfair stated. "I'd recommend you get the crew blankets and into common areas on the ship quickly."

Lauren smiled at him, "Right. I take it you have some experience with cold?"

"Aside from melting hearts?" he jibed, shaking his head. "No, I lived on Karin and the winters are bloody cold; you learn a few tricks to keeping your men warm on winter patrols."

They returned to the rear of the bridge, opened the emergency stairwell that was located there, and met with the surprised face of the Kaynin doctor climbing up towards them. "What's going on?" the young alien inquired.

"Skipper's going to hide from the Eelim for a few hours," Lauren explained as they started down the stairs.

The doctor shook his head as he walked out onto the shadowy bridge lit by the lanterns and the cold blue light from the ice field outside the Excalibur. He stopped by the engineer and nodded to the ice crystals frosting on the inside of the windows.

"That doesn't look good."

Elias looked up at the doctor and smiled, "It's no big deal; Excalibur is pretty well insulated, and we should be fine for a few hours."

"Coats, then," the doctor ordered. "All of you, put layers on and wrap up warm." He glanced meaningfully at the captain, "You too, sir."

Darien shrugged, walked back to the command chair and pulled on the heavy great coat, wrapping it tightly about him as he returned to his place pacing the quarterdeck beneath the windows.

"Nervous habit?" Kyr observed quietly to the engineer.

"Oh, he just does that when he's thinking," Elias replied shutting down the last of the systems and turning to the Doctor. "We're going to be fine. He knows what he's doing."

* * *

Hour seven came and went and hot drinks had been passed out to the officers on the bridge. The Excalibur had become a cold and icy place, the temperature dipping cold enough for their breaths to frost as they exhaled.

Elias and the small doctor were wrapped in bulky oversized winter parkas, gloves and all, gripping the mugs of cocoa in their hands as they shivered. They looked like little children in gear which was designed for marines.

Only Shale seemed unaffected by the cold; working in the mines and deserted asteroids throughout their space, the Taïrians were used to the cold. Shale had a thick coat of fur to keep him warm as he stood patiently keeping an eye on his humanoid crewmates.

Darien continued to pace, sure that he was working a hole in the deck plates. They'd gone active once an hour after the first two to check to see the progress of the swarm-so far they hadn't moved on from the system; it was as if they knew the Excalibur hadn't left and were content to wait for the Imperial vessel to emerge from its hiding place.

"Captain," Kyr stated, catching the captain as he completed another length of the command deck. "We can't stay here much longer, we're going to start experiencing hypothermia..." he shivered as his teeth began to chatter.

Darien thoughtfully chewed on his lip. The Eelim were still out there looking for the partially frozen vessel but he couldn't risk his crew much longer.

Lauren emerged from the stairwell clapping her arms about her, wrapped in blankets and a woolly hat she'd found in the ships stores, "Last check the crew's doing okay, chef's dishing out some hot soup in the mess hall and a lot of crew are clustering there to stay warm. Mayfair also broke out some gas heaters from the marine stores, so we're doing okay for now."

Darien coughed and shivered as he pulled his coat tighter about himself, drinking from his cup. The liquid was cooling rapidly and he stared down at it and sighed. "Can we make it through the night?" he asked, turning.

"If we pull the rest of the crew back to the mess halls and command deck," Kyr replied. "Get some of those space heaters up here and keep serving hot drinks and we might be able to do it." He shrugged, "I don't recommend it, and we have to try to stay awake."

Lauren nodded setting off to go requisition the appropriate heaters. Nazzien, the dark-skinned Orion was not faring as well as the others. Wrapped in a thermal sleeping bag he was wearing as a coat, he sat down dramatically and shivered, blowing on his hands.

It was going to get rougher, Darien knew, and glanced up at the windows now completely covered in frost. "We need to move to a smaller space-my stateroom," he said, nodding and gesturing for the bridge officers to leave the bridge and retreat back into a room that could be better heated by the small gas heaters.

Lauren and Mayfair carried the space heater between them as they wrestled it into the comfortable room, Elias breaking out more blankets as the heater was set up. Despite the cold the room began to warm up quickly, Mayfair nodding proudly as he adjusted the heat and warmed his cold hands.

"The crew have a few of these and are weathering it well-we should be okay as long as we have gas in these things."

Darien nodded as he sat down behind his desk glancing around at the officers clustered about the heater warming themselves, Nazzien all but basking in the heat. He smiled grimly as he pulled his pen out and began to write in the log.

* * *

It was about three am, Darien reckoned, as he returned to the warmth of his stateroom after touring the deserted ship, making sure to stop at the mess hall and let his crew know he was sharing in the cold. He had seen a number of them brighten when he appeared, all of them wrapped in blankets and sleeping bags about the crowded deck.

Chef had poured him a mug of soup that he had accepted gratefully, spending a bit of time just making sure they were all right. But he was anxious to return to the stateroom and find out the latest report.

Elias had just reactivated Kit for his standard hourly report, the Commander glancing about and looked thoughtful. "A lot of the swarm have moved on," he reported. "There are still a few out there, but they are thinning, a few more hours and they should be moved on to their next destination."

Darien cheered up at the news, nodding. "How is Excalibur holding up?" he asked in genuine concern.

"She's cold, but she's more worried about all of you, she wants to protect you but isn't sure how she can," Kit replied truthfully.

"Thank her for me," Darien replied. "She is protecting us."

Kit inclined his head as Elias shut the hologram down again.

Darien turned and sat down on one of the couches glancing to where Nazzien was lightly napping close to the heat; Lauren had instinctively curled up against Mayfair, the major talking to her quietly and making her laugh with a few well-placed jokes.

Shale had positioned himself by the windows, leafing through a book he had pulled down from the shelf grunting quietly to himself as he disagreed with Nietzsche's philosophies. Elias found a seat next to Darien, curling up for additional warmth, tossing the warm afghan over the captain and smiling up at him fondly.

The doctor sat on the floor at the base of the couch opposite and blinked in surprise at the closeness of the two men and looked questioningly up at Lauren. She winked to let him know she would explain later as she looked about her at the grim silence settling over the room.

"I was born on Earth," she said with a smile, "Toronto." She looked over at Mayfair as the other crew members looked at her sudden breaking of the silence.

"I was born in Karin city," Mayfair said with a shrug. "Thus the rather piss-poor British accent, we're all descended from British colonists..."

"I don't know where I was born," Nazzien spoke up quietly. "My people don't believe in maternal and paternal ties, we're born and delivered to a guildhall and we're raised there. I was raised on the Altairian Guildhall..."

"I was born on Keppe," Kyr chimed up. "It's a small entertainment world in Orion space, my mother was an actress."

"Earth as well," Darien said quietly. "San Francisco born and raised."

"A Yank," Mayfair said with a grin. "That explains it."

"Careful, limey," Darien jibed back with a smile. "At least we know what real football is..."

"Don't even get me started," Mayfair replied with a grin.

"What about you," Kyr asked flashing his canine teeth in a smile as he nodded at Elias.

Elias's face fell a bit, as he grew uncomfortable. Darien's hand fell protectively across the young man's shoulders to offer some level of understanding.

"Something I said?" Kyr asked in confusion, glancing up at Lauren.

Lauren shook her head. "Our faithful and trusty engineer's from Mars, but we're his family," she said smiling over at the engineer. Elias brightened a bit at that.

"Hey, where's Kendrick?" Elias asked trying to change the topic away from him.

Darien glanced up, "He's down in the mess hall with his Paladins, seems loath to leave them lately."

"Fraternizing with the men," Mayfair shook his head, and blinked as he glanced over at the captain. "I'm sorry, sir, I didn't mean..."

Darien shook his head, "We do things a bit differently on this ship. Lauren said it best, we're family here."

"Does that make Nazzien adopted?" Elias chimed up playfully.

Nazzien flicked open his eye again looking over at the engineer, "Watch it, squirt."

Kyr chuckled, and earned another disdainful look from the weapons officer, "And you can stop your grinning or I'll tell Shale he can have you for dinner."

Shale's ears perked up as he glanced at the young Kaynin and licked his broad teeth, returning to his book.

Mayfair chuckled as he poured himself some more cocoa from the thermos and offered it to Lauren. She accepted it with a smile, and the major glanced across at Darien. "So, Skipper, how long have..." he gestured to Elias curled up against him.

Lauren coughed into her cocoa at the brazenness of the question. Shale's book snapped shut in surprise, and Nazzien sat upright expectantly.

Darien struggled with the question glancing down at Elias and back up at the major. "I..." he offered lamely.

Elias chuckled as he rolled, setting his head onto Darien's lap and smirking, enjoying Darien's discomfort at the sudden light being shone on their relationship, whatever relationship that was.

"How about we not discuss my personal life," Darien said diplomatically as his fingers idly fiddled with the lieutenant bars on Elias's collar.

"Right, then," Mayfair replied, making a mental note to ask Lauren later. "Think they're gone?" he asked looking up at the stern windows.

Darien shrugged, "Even if they're not all gone, I expect to jump clear and lose them with a couple of strategic jumps; there's a pulsar a couple of jumps from here, Excalibur's equipped to handle the radiation, they aren't." He shrugged, "A little luck and we will be fine."

"Confident words from the captain," Kyr grinned as he took a turn with the thermos.

"It's my job to be confident," Darien replied as he glanced about the room and the strangers that had been tossed together to become a part of his crew, a part of that family. He rested his chin on a hand as he watched them, a moment of quiet in the storm.

"You know what I should get?" Kyr chimed up. "A deck of cards..."

"I don't gamble," Darien stated, knowing better than to be drawn into a game, even a friendly one, with his crewmates.

"But..." Kyr protested.

"No, the captain's right." Lauren said. "We shouldn't gamble."

Shale choked from the corner as Nazzien watched the ceiling and Mayfair smirked. Kyr looked confused at their reactions. "Am I missing something?" the young Kaynin asked, smelling the scent of amusement on the air.

Darien yawned tiredly shaking his head at the insane officers around him as he pulled the afghan around him and started to drift off to sleep.

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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The battleship's AI is an aware being enough to feel emotions and care for her crew -- what a wonderful idea -- a machine feeling emotions.

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A long wait, but a great way to know more about the crew and ship.  Kendrick is having some problems, and Darien should have a talk with him.  Kendrick is part of the family as well as an important leader in the crew.

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A dark and cold night but they seem to have come through it unscathed. A very maternal ship, our Excaliber

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Darien's "I don't gamble" is hilarious when all his exploits have been gambles.

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