The Falcon Banner - 31. Chapter 31
long time allies of the Empire, was a mistake.
He was right.
-Professor J. Bellevance 'The Myth Behind the Man'
The sun was shining, warmth baking down upon the Tempus compound and evaporating the rain from the night before. Darien was standing on the small terrace outside his room staring across the Imperial base at the strange manmade island to the north side, and the airfield to the south where his Raptor's wings poked out above the droves of hangars that stored the Tempus air wing.
Troops were jogging through the narrow roads beneath him, marching and training as they had for generations, preparing for an inevitable invasion that never came. Darien knew why the Polians held off on their assault-the data the captain of the trade liner had given him was insightful.
After the Imperial invasion, as the Polian fleet lay in ruins, the Polian Alliance began to fracture. Divergent alien races sought to carve out their own niches inside the once great alliance, rushing to build ships while the Polian government attempted to keep order. The infamous Polian fleet was reduced to nothing more than an overworked police force trying to keep the new factions in line. Though they had survived the Imperial invasion, the Polians were in no condition to attack anyone.
It was a secret the Polians closely guarded from outsiders, and one Darien fully intended to use to his advantage as he charted a course back to the Hegemony and to Earth.
One of the patrolling infantry Mechs swung steadily into view; the mass of armour plating, dual maser cannons and missile banks looked like an oversized children's toy. Support units were good for what they did, acting as mobile artillery and fire support, but beyond that nothing could beat the pure stopping power of a main-line battle tank.
There was a gentle tap at the door and Darien turned, re-entered the room, tying his black tie and brushing down his tan uniform shirt as he opened it on Major Rousseau.
"Captain, sir, the colonel requests that you join him for breakfast on the terrace." The major tossed off another salute and stepped back, Darien nodding as he contemplated taking his gun belt. Experience told him what happened when he went about unarmed, so he buckled it on and grabbed his jacket to follow the major. The two marine sentries Mayfair had posted on his room door for the night took up flanking positions as they escorted him down to breakfast.
Major Mayfair was already sitting down on the patio talking to the colonel, both men standing as the young captain joined them. Colonel Ramsey smiled as he gestured to the seat across from him; his eyes flicked to the PKD Darien was wearing to the breakfast table, and he smiled.
"Something tells me you're a man that's seen a bit of action, Captain," he said, his eyes travelling up to the Knight's Cross before they rested on Darien's eyes.
"You could say that," Darien stated, taking the pre-offered seat.
"The captain fought the battle of Eisenhower," Major Mayfair said with a proud nod. "Just the Excalibur against two Amsus battle groups and a space station-he won."
"So I gathered from the news data we downloaded from the Excalibur," the colonel replied as one of the stewards stepped forward to begin serving breakfast. "Seems the good captain has been quite busy, leading the Fifth Column Resistance against the Amsus, finding VonGrippen's lost fleet, helping to restore the Empire..."
Darien shrugged again simply. "I do what needs to be done," he replied, accepting the coffee the steward poured for him. "So, Colonel," Darien stated looking across the table at the other man, "what did you want to discuss with me this morning?"
The colonel's strong eyes beneath his bushy eyebrows tried to read Darien's face as he weighed how much he should tell him. Darien had seen that look many times when interrogating suspects in Ter-Sec, it was the look of a man hiding something.
"We're loyal Imperial citizens," Ramsey began, glancing over at his executive officer sitting beside him, chewing over his words with care. "We want to do our part to ensure that you succeed in freeing Earth from those Amsus bastards." He cocked his head and nodded thoughtfully, "It's a chance to finally get of this damn rock and go home."
Rousseau started in his chair and glanced at his colonel, a subtle gesture that Darien noted. Obviously that was not part of the plan.
"I see," Darien stated carefully. "Excalibur is a strike cruiser, we're not equipped to transport your army..."
"No," Ramsey said, adjusting his posture in his chair-a confident man used to being in command and unaccustomed to asking for something, which made him uncomfortable- "but your ship could help us get the ships we need."
Rousseau relaxed and Darien's eyes flicked to him-back to the plan it seemed.
"What do you propose?" Darien asked carefully.
"The Skyella Nebula is the graveyard to hundreds of Imperial ships that were destroyed by the Polians," Ramsey stated. "Troop transports and dreadnaughts, cruisers and destroyers. " He motioned to one of the stewards who placed a laptop down on the edge of the table beside Darien; it showed flight recorder data, apparently from an escaping drop ship. The drop ship guided itself through the gas clouds, through what appeared to be a fierce battle, ships moving into and out of gas clouds as they engaged and withdrew on attack sorties.
Darien realized he was watching a recording of the end of Kardiac's fleet.
Mayfair whistled. "That's a lot of ships," he murmured.
"Yes," Ramsey stated with a nod. "We have managed to, over the years, piece together an accurate position for every ship lost in the battle of the Skyella Nebula from data recorders like that one."
Darien watched the drop ship as she navigated around the damaged hull of an Imperial warship, a massive dreadnaught with its golden lion on the hull-Kardiac's flagship, the HMS Lion's Pride. The massive beast of a vessel hung darkly in the clouds of gas as the small drop ship shot away heading for the sanctuary of Tempus.
"And you need us to help you recover one of these ships?" Darien inquired, looking up.
"We have managed a lot with what we have here," Ramsey explained. "We can assemble small salvaging parties and have managed to penetrate the outer levels of the nebula, but our ships lack the range needed to penetrate deeper into the nebula, to where the main bulk of the fleet is."
"You want me to take my ship in there and bring you back a transport ship?" Darien asked, studying the footage as it looped again.
"Yes," Ramsey replied. "One of the troop transports should be enough for me to safely load our forces on and return to the Empire; once there we can position ourselves along with the mainstay of your invasion fleet and offer you highly trained ground forces for your fight to liberate our home world."
"I can't afford to wait for you," Darien stated looking up from the computer again. "There's no telling what kind of condition these ships are in; if I do recover one for you I can't escort you back to the Empire..."
"I understand that," Ramsey said, sipping his coffee and watching Darien across the table. "We'll refit the vessel here and then head directly for Earth and join your forces as soon as we can." He smiled, "Two entire battalions of Imperial shock troops, equipment and..." he glanced up as a Mech lumbered past the patio, "...support vehicles."
* * *
"It's an opportunity we can't afford to miss," Mayfair stated as he stood at one side of the CIC chart table. The map of the Skyella Nebula hovered like a cloud projected by the Excalibur's holographic systems. "Two battalions of troops and equipment will make invading Earth a lot easier."
"That's if they honour their side of the deal," Lauren commented, her arms folded and staring down at the chart. She watched as it highlighted the predicted positions of the Imperial derelicts.
"What guarantees are they offering?" Commander Durham asked, a troubled look on his face, the hologram staring into the cloud on the chart table. "I mean there is nothing to stop them from attacking the Polian Alliance once they get a ship."
"They don't have the strength," Darien replied. "They can at best field three fighter squadrons and a couple of battalions of troops, but that won't be enough to dent the Polian forces."
"That hasn't stopped people before," Kit responded eyeing Darien meaningfully. "We need to be very careful what we give them access to."
"Agreed," Darien replied. "One troop transport, no warships and we control the operation."
"So what's the plan?" Nazzien asked from his seat at the table.
Darien tapped a couple of controls on the table, "We're taking aboard a squadron of Tempus marine aviators, elements of VMA-23..."
"The Black Knights," Kendrick explained. "They're equipped to fly drop ships, conduct boarding actions and the like.
"Right," Darien said. "Once Excalibur is into the nebula we select a ship, the Knights fly over to it, Mayfair's marines and an engineering crew from Excalibur board it, we secure towing cables from the Excalibur and we just pull her out. Smooth and simple salvage operation."
"Excalibur's not a tug boat," Kit replied.
"He's got a point," Elias chimed in. "We're going to have to take it slowly but we should be able to manage it so long as we keep the towing stress down and try not to hit anything coming out."
"So the question is," Darien glanced about at his officers, "do we attempt this?"
"The rewards are worth the risk," Mayfair stated. "Two battalions come D-day will make a big difference."
Lauren studied the map and looked across at Mayfair, "This makes me uneasy, but Marty's right, we need all the help we can get in what's to come."
"I've spent time with the Black Knights, they're a good bunch of people," Kendrick said folding his arms. "I'd trust them."
Nazzien heaved a heavy sigh looking up at Shale beside him before they both nodded their agreement.
"I'm in," Elias commented. "I'll lead the engineering team." He met Darien's eyes, "You need someone across there that knows about salvaging ships."
Kit shook his head, "Excalibur doesn't like this, but she is willing to follow her captain's orders."
"She gets a vote just like the rest of us," Darien stated resolutely.
Kit blinked in surprise and nodded his head, "Then she votes to do this, but urges caution."
"As do I," Darien said folding his arms. "Then it's settled; Major radio down to the base and inform them that we'll help them."
* * *
"We have a unique opportunity here," Rousseau insisted, the flats of his palms on the table surface, his eyes burning as he tried to stare the colonel down.
Ramsey met his gaze levelly, "There are more important things at stake here than the ideas of a man hundreds of years in his grave!" He stood turning his back on the major as he stared out over the compound, "If we go back to Earth and we assist in the invasion, the Imperials stand a good chance of actually succeeding, whereas your plan..." he turned, "it's suicide."
Rousseau shook his head, "You're not seeing the bigger picture..."
"No Major, it is you that is failing to see the big picture," the colonel stated flatly. "My answer is no and that is final."
Rousseau closed his eyes and swallowed down his protests, gritting his teeth as he straightened. "Sir, yes sir!" he bit out.
"I'm glad we agree," the colonel replied, balling his hands behind his back. "Send in the Knight's squadron leader."
Rousseau nodded his head as he turned on his heel and marched from the base commander's office. He jerked his thumb at the young commanding officer of VMA-23 and gestured for her to go in.
Angelina "Archangel" Masconi, Squadron leader and the only credited ace of the Black Knight Squadron would have been considered a beautiful woman were it not for the vicious scar that twisted her face into a permanent scowl. She wore her black flight suit with its golden lion head patches and rank insignia marking her position as Squadron Leader. Her long black hair was pulled back away from her face, tucked under the special operations beret she wore on her head; there was an air of professionalism about the woman as she came to attention before the desk.
"Angelina," Ramsey greeted as he turned to face his daughter.
"Colonel, sir," she bit back rigidly; there was no room in the office for familiarity.
Ramsey's smile faded as he sat down. "I have an assignment for you, Squadron Leader," he said folding his hands on the desk before him. "I am deploying VMA-23 to the HMS Excalibur to act as a marine support wing assisting in the salvage operation of an Imperial troop transport from the Skyella Nebula."
"Sir?" Masconi asked questioningly. "We are an attack squadron, not baby-sitters." She pronounced each of the words close-clipped, her Tempus accent belying its Italian heritage.
"For the time being you're baby-sitting," Ramsey stated firmly shuffling papers on his desk. "This isn't a debate, get your 120's and drop ships airborne and marshal aboard the Excalibur by..." he checked his watch, "sixteen hundred hours."
"Sir, yes sir," Masconi saluted her father, turning and marching from the office without waiting to be dismissed.
Colonel Ramsey rubbed his brow, so much like her mother. Refusing any help he could offer she'd even rejected the benefits his name would have offered to her. He shook his head-gone were the days of trading on names; the Empire was long gone, now there was only a tentative glimmer of hope for the future and he was going to take it.
* * *
The ship was starting to buzz, the addition of VMA-23 to the ship's flight deck meant that the Excalibur had a full tactical wing onboard ship. The F-120 "Orcas" as Darien had come to learn they were called, apparently because of their striking resemblance to killer whales with wings, sat on the flight deck ready to be stowed away in the hanger deck beneath the flight deck.
Lauren, clipboard in hand, was busy with berthing assignments as she assigned barracks to the newcomers to the ship. She had been surprised to learn the squadron leader of the Black Knights was a consummate professional issuing orders to her boys in a loud booming voice that echoed around the flight deck.
"She's one hell of a woman isn't she?" Nazzien commented with a smirk as he stared wistfully down at Masconi who was marching to and fro, bellowing at Elias's plane crews and mechanics who were attempting to clear her fighters from the flight deck.
"Mmm," Darien murmured, idly leaning on the rail watching as the pair of drop ships swept in for their landings. He frowned at the sight of Kardiac infantry soldiers that were assembling on the deck. "I don't recall giving authorization..." he murmured as he started down the ladder to the flight deck below.
Nazzien blinked, hurrying to follow the captain as they crossed the flight deck, Darien ducking under the wing of one of the Orcas that was being manoeuvred out of the way.
Major Rousseau saw his approach and turned, neatly snapping off a crisp salute, "Colonel Ramsey thought it best to assign me to oversee our end of the operation." The Major smiled pleasantly, "He's a bit anxious to get off Tempus."
Darien glanced at the troopers, hard-eyed and standing rigid with their pulse rifles; there weren't many of them, but they could cause a problem. Darien chewed on the idea a moment, wondering if he should just ship them off back to Tempus.
"I have our orders here," Rousseau said, holding up a folded sheet of paper.
Darien shook his head, they didn't really have time to argue; he would have a word with Mayfair, ensure that the sensitive areas of the ship were put under guard as long as the Kardiac troops were on ship, ensuring that they were prepared in case of trouble. He gestured to Lauren who joined them an uncertain look on her face as she leafed through the papers on her clipboard. "Captain?" she inquired, glancing at him uncertainly.
"It seems we have a few more guests," Darien stated. "Can we fit them into the barracks?"
Lauren chewed her lip;"We might have room if we have some of the crew hot bunk... I mean alternate who sleeps in a bed based off of the shift, but the officer..."
"I'll sleep with my men," Rousseau said. "It's only for a few days, it shouldn't be a problem."
Darien nodded, "Very well then Major, I leave you in my first officer's more than capable hands." He inclined his head again as he turned marching along the deck, Nazzien hurrying to keep up with his long strides.
"You're pissed," he said in a low tone.
"You're damn right I am," Darien responded, pausing to allow an ordinance cart past. Masconi was bellowing at the two grease monkeys to be careful how they handled the missiles.
"Should I keep an eye on them?" Nazzien asked as they entered the elevator.
Darien turned to the suspicious Orion and nodded, "I think that would be a good idea."
* * *
"Welcome aboard, Major," Kendrick greeted Rousseau, running into him in the mess hall.
The Army officer looked up from his tray and nodded to the wing commander, gesturing at the seat across from him. "It's nice," he said looking about him at the bulkheads of the crowded ship. "We train for starship operations but this is the first time I've been on a starship, and the first time I've seen an Imperial one outside of a textbook."
"It must be a relief to be off the planet," Kendrick agreed. "I lived awhile on Irulia, small colony in the Terran occupied zone."
"That must have been hard," Rousseau stated, "living in the shadow of the creatures that oppressed your people."
Kendrick nodded his head. "Exactly," he replied. "Living harvest to harvest and watching the Hegemony come by every year to collect their 'taxes'," he shuddered. "Bastards."
"Funny," Rousseau said his hand curling around an apple he had chosen for his dessert, "it never used to be that way. Once upon a time we collected taxes from them."
Kendrick nodded his head, "The good times."
"Indeed, before the Polians," Rousseau finished.
"Polians?" Kendrick's brow furrowed, "But we attacked them..."
Rousseau blinked in surprise, "Who told you that?" He shook his head firmly, "Amsus propaganda; the Polians were exploiting their alliance with the Empire, and used their diplomacy to hide the fact that they were occupying our border colonies." He shook his head, "They started the conflict, and then they broke the Imperial fleet at Skyella."
Kendrick stared down at his tray. "I didn't realize," he said thoughtfully. "I studied history in university, it was always very sterile, the Amsus just listed what happened, never the why..."
"There's always a reason for war," Rousseau stated firmly. "The Polians, the Amsus it doesn't matter; the only thing that matters is we are in a fight for the survival of the species." He looked grim, "And we're losing."
Kendrick shook his head, "No, we can win, we have the ships, we have the troops and so long as we stay united we can beat the Amsus...."
"But the Amsus aren't the only enemy." Rousseau kept his voice low so that it didn't carry to the other tables, "Once the Polians learn the Empire is being restored, whose side do you believe they will be on? Think about that one when you go to bed tonight." He stood, biting into his apple and walked away from the table.
Kendrick looked down at the table, realizing that he was right.
* * *
Mayfair wandered across the bridge; it was typically Lauren's shift, but she had retired early leaving the hologram on deck keeping watch over the ship. The Major yawned tiredly, nodding to the commander as he wandered back towards the elevator; it would be a long couple of days and as much as he wanted to talk to her she was probably asleep.
* * *
Nurse Pia shut down the lights to the deserted sickbay, content that there was no major catastrophe that required her to stay up all night. She smiled to herself as she wandered down the length of the corridor, nodding to Wing Commander Kendrick who seemed lost in thought in a hurry to get somewhere.
* * *
Darien sat on the couch in his stateroom looking over the details of the Kardiac plan to salvage the Troop Transport, occasionally clicking his pen to make a few notes on a scrap piece of paper as he worked.
It was somewhere close to ridiculously late and he looked up and at the door wondering where Elias was. Probably lost in his own work preparing for the salvage mission; he'd be along before too long.
He tapped the papers against his leg thoughtfully; the key problem the Tempus forces faced was that the nebula was just beyond the fuel range of their fighters. They were too small to mount ram scoops and modifying their conventional freighters and drop ships with extra fuel capacity had proved nearly fatal when trying to manoeuvre blind through the nebula.
Excalibur held several key advantages that made her ideal for the task, the first being that she had no fuel requirements; her reactors were sufficient to keep her powered over the longer distance. The second was that she was sufficiently armed to deal with debris from the derelict starships in the nebula; what would be a threat to a fighter blinded and running off of instruments, Excalibur could plough through without batting an eyelid, and her sensors would permit her better reaction times.
Once they located a ship that would be sufficient to their needs, it would be up to Excalibur's pinpoint batteries to protect the salvaged vessel. Darien made another note to have Nazzien conduct some more reaction drills on the way to the nebula. It didn't hurt to be over-prepared.
He looked up again and glanced at his watch; Elias was nowhere in sight. Maybe he had figured to sleep in his own cabin for a change supplemented with sleeping pills. Darien shook his head tossing the papers down onto the coffee table and retiring for the night.
* * *
They stumbled into the small, darkened cabin, unheedful of the furniture. The door slid closed behind them with a grating hiss, locking automatically with a heavy clang. There was little privacy on the Excalibur, the only sanctuary from the watchful eyes of the rest of the crew were the cabins. It was late at night, those crew that weren't in their bunks were on shift and nowhere close to the deck where the two had disappeared to without being noticed. The only sounds stirring in the darkness aboard ship were the faint sounds of machinery or the rhythmic humming of the ships life support system.
Hands fumbled at buttons and clasps, frantically unhooking and pulling open uniforms while their mouths grappled with the frenzy of borrowed time. His shirt came off, dropping to the deck where it fell, joining the other pieces that lay in a crumpled trail from the door to the low hard bunk tucked under the bulkhead.
They said nothing, there were no words that could come close, only the ragged breathing and thunderous pounding of heartbeats from two caught up in instincts and adrenalin. They fell back onto the bunk, fumbling blindly to catch themselves before they slipped off of it onto the floor, nothing but sweat and skin between them as they paused to look into each others eyes. They fell into a kiss again as they both climbed back into the bunk, laughing for a second as they caught their breaths.
They both knew it was insanity, but they drew together again, pressing their mouths together, swollen lips kissing with abandon.
He squirmed beneath the assaulting lips, his mind reeling on base impulses, guided by the mix of pleasure and pain as he tried to control the sensations searing through every nerve in his body. He arched his back falling back to the coarse blanket urging his partner down on top of him. Hands raked across smooth skin on shoulder blades, pressing hard as he reassured himself of the physical contact. The smell of desire poured over his senses, causing him to gasp out loud.
Kisses travelled down first tracing the jaw line, down the delicate skin of the neck, onto the sensitive hollow between the collarbones. Teeth grazed the velvet surface of the skin, tracing the planes and surfaces of the muscles. The heat between them jumped like electricity as they turned as one.
A moan, incoherent in its utterance but carrying forth unquestioned meaning escaped the throat. Aching muscles cried out for some kind of release as their brains surrendered to the instincts guiding their hands by sensation. Both knowing they were desperate for more, both aching for it.
A single motion pinned arms above the head, and his lips locked onto his partner's mouth, battling furiously to regain some form of control, but it was a vain struggle. It was something bigger than both of them, nature guiding them onwards to its inevitable conclusion. He trembled and surrendered again his kisses travelling down further, spurred on by the fingers raking through his hair, and the single hiss...
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