The Falcon Banner - 39. Chapter 39
An age-old battle cry of the oppressed,
I say now we add one more to that: humanity!
Now go, cry it from every rooftop, whisper it in every dark corner, scrawl it on walls, and let them know the Empire and Taine are coming for them.
Let the Amsus oppress that!
-Walker von Karin 'Message to Earth'
"We're entering more populated sectors," Kit warned, materializing to one side of the bridge, adjusting his glasses and looking up to the tactical board being fed data from the Ark Royal and Invincible. It was updating rapidly showing transports and freighters sweeping to and fro navigating their way through the heart of Polian space towards the capital world, Arcanis.
Darien stood leaning on the command chair watching the small EV-II hopping through the system. "Shouldn't he be out of fuel by now?" he asked, stepping down to look over Lauren's shoulder.
"Sacrifice missiles for fuel tanks and he should be good all the way to Arcanis," Elias stated as he came forward to join them, the young engineer finally being allowed back on duty. "And we're not gaining on him, he's too fast."
"Can the Polians identify us?" Darien asked looking over at the holographic commander.
"It is unclear," Kit replied, looking thoughtful. "Our Intel on Polian capabilities is several hundred years old; if we presume they are on a similar technological level to the old Empire then we are showing up on their scopes."
"Surrounded by warning alarms no doubt," Nazzien remarked dryly. "And while they are just freighters, and random patrol vessels are no real threat, I don't like the idea of coming under the guns of Arcanis's perimeter defence satellites and capital ships."
Darien folded his arms, "We're not going to catch him before he reaches the Arcanis system; our best bet is to try to head him off, or to get a warning to the Polians."
"Either option takes us into the Arcanis system," Nazzien replied, "and those defensive satellites will destroy us before we get a chance to send a radio broadcast."
"Then we have to find a way to fool the Polian sensors long enough for us to do what we have to do in Arcanis," Darien said simply, taking a seat in his chair and steepling his fingers thoughtfully. "The question is, how do we get a vessel of this size into Arcanis unnoticed."
"You hide it," Masconi said from her place behind them. Darien pivoted his chair to face her. Standing alongside Colonel Mayfair, she pointed to the tactical display, "When you don't want to be seen, you hide."
Darien looked up at the display, his eyes travelling over the freighters, and an idea began to form in his mind. "For the next jump," he said standing up and joining Lauren at her pedestal console, punching in a series of co-ordinates calculating the jump, "we're going to call in a favour."
Nazzien's head snapped up, his eyes wide, "Aww come on, Skipper… no…"
Darien took his seat again as the Excalibur broke off its pursuit, the two escorts pulling away as well in perfect formation, allowing Kendrick to a respite from the chase.
* * *
Kendrick glanced at his radar, relieved to see the Excalibur and her support ships breaking off of the chase, exactly as Rousseau predicted they would the moment they ran into Polian vessels. Darien was no fool; he wasn't about to risk his ship and the hope for a free Earth to save one of humanity's greatest enemies.
He thought about all that he was doing, about the weapon strapped beneath him. He was preparing to wipe out an entire world. The missile was unlike any that had come before it with the kind of destructive power that even the Empire had been loathe to develop-a weapon of last resort designed to end a war utterly.
He shook his head, firm in his resolve. It had to be done; the Polians had to be stopped before they destroyed the Empire and ended the dream once and for all. He set the co-ordinates for the next jump, readying the jump pods and reached out to tap the activation controls.
* * *
The Million Tears was manoeuvring away from the last stop before Arcanis and the end of its trade run when the Excalibur and its escorts entered the system. The Imperial vessels kept themselves in the shadow of a small gas giant in the outer system so they were at least temporarily hidden from the Polian defence outpost on the colony world. The last thing Darien needed was to have to fight his way through squadrons of angry Polian fighters dispatched to deal with their presence.
The Imperial captain was watching his tactical scopes nervously, waiting until the trade liner was in range for a tight-beam laser communication. He had cleared the decks for general quarters and Masconi had scrambled the fighter CAP, the fighters tightening up around the Imperial vessels to cover them in case they were spotted.
"Captain," Nazzien insisted quietly coming up beside him, the Orion lieutenant looking anxious, "you can't drag my people into the middle of a centuries-old war; we survive because of our neutrality…"
"I know," Darien stated watching the clock. His eyes turned to focus on his friend, "But we need their help; without it we have to run the gauntlet of the Polian guns…"
"We're going to have to run them anyway to get out of the system," Kit pointed out appearing behind Nazzien. "The moment we make our presence known the Polians are going to go to full alert, their defence platforms will begin tracking us, their defensive squadrons will scramble and we will have to endure hours of battle before our jump pods recharge. The odds are not in our favour for this."
"You're advising me to pick my battles?" Darien asked quietly.
"I'm saying we need to fight a battle we can win," Kit stated firmly.
"Then we are going to have to make sure our jump pods are fully charged when we jump into the Polian system," Darien said softly.
"That's impossible," Elias said looking up from where he was working to rig up the command interface for the rebuilt combat radar system. "When we jump we completely drain the jump pods; it takes time, even for a zero point reactor, to recharge."
"I know," Darien stated, "but I have no intention of using our jump drives to get us to Arcanis." He looked up at the display, "Open a frequency to the Million Tears, send them my regards and request a rendezvous."
* * *
Tirana listened with interest as Darien explained their situation. Excalibur had docked with the Million Tears in the lee side of the gas giant, powering down her engines to reduce the chance of the Polian outpost noticing that there was an Imperial vessel present. Invincible and Ark Royal kept pace, using the radiation of the Million Tears' engines to mask their own presence.
"What you are asking for is very dangerous for our people," the trade liner's captain said as she reached out a hand to scoop up a goblet, looking up at the decorated ceiling of the comfortable stateroom aboard her ship. "If we are suspected of helping you, my ship will be attacked by the Polians and I don't fancy our chances."
"All I am asking you for is to get us into the system," Darien said. "Excalibur will ride your baffles all the way into the system and break once we are past the defence platforms."
"The Polians will need more than 'oh, I didn't know they were there' to believe we were not involved," Tirana explained. "You've done a lot for my people, but to ask us to join you in this…" She shook her head, "We can't risk being pulled into this war."
"Then fire on us," Darien stated simply.
Tirana nearly choked on her drink. "What?" she stared at him in shock.
"You need to prove you were unaware of our presence, then fire on us as we break away." Darien folded his arms as he sat back into the chair, "You won't provoke war with us doing so, we know your intentions, and it should convince the Polians of your intentions if you join their battle."
Tirana thought about it, staring at Darien with her ivory eyes. "And this is to save the Polian capital world?" she asked carefully. "Why would you risk everything just to save them?"
Darien shifted in his seat, "Because if I just stand by and let them die I'm no better than Kardiac and his followers, and I am not restoring that Empire. I want freedom for my people, and we are going to do that without genocide."
"Noble sentiment, Captain Taine," she replied. "Not very smart, but noble." She stood up, "Prepare your ship to travel with us."
"Thank you," Darien said with a smile as he shook her hand.
"No, don't thank me. I am going to tell my gunners to blow your ship out of space the moment you break out of our engine wake; you should thank them if their aim is bad."
Darien inclined his head, "Fair enough, Captain; good journey."
"Good journey," she replied, shaking her head at the insane Imperial who seemed intent on committing suicide just to do the right thing.
* * *
"The Ark Royal and Invincible will link up with us here," Darien stated pointing to an abandoned system in the middle of nowhere three jumps from Arcanis near to the border with Hegemony space. "It's going to be trick enough getting Excalibur in and out of Arcanis without having to baby-sit the carriers."
"We're going to have to keep an eye on them," Nazzien warned.
"I'm going to leave R-403 to escort them-she should be able to shepherd the support carriers," Darien replied.
"Who are you leaving in command?" Mayfair asked, his arms folded as he lounged against one of the plotting boards.
"You, Colonel," Darien replied. "They are going to need someone they respect keeping them in line, and I don't trust Ramsey yet…" He looked over at Masconi, "I'm sorry…"
"Don't worry about it;" the squadron leader replied, "I understand your caution."
"Good," Darien replied activating the situation table as it showed the Arcanis system based off of the Intel provided by the Orion captain. It detailed the location of the defence platforms and the fighter patrols. A yellow line appeared showing the course of the trade liner as it travelled under the guns of the Polian defence platforms clearing it, a green line arced out showing the Excalibur's breakaway, smaller green dots lighting up to show the launching fighters of VMA-23.
"We're going to have to intercept Kendrick before he can attain a firing solution on Arcanis," Darien said as a larger red sphere appeared around the planet showing the optimum firing range of an Imperial missile which bisected Arcanis's outer moon neatly.
"So if he gets past the moon it's all over?" Lauren asked looking over at Masconi.
"Yes," Darien replied simply.
"Then you're going to need all your best pilots in fighters to stop him," Lauren said quietly.
"I've been modifying a pair of recon fighters into EV-II's, but we haven't had time to build more," Elias chimed in. "And I've managed to repair the combat radar," Elias continued, "but it's jury-rigged like a Christmas tree, so one good hit and we'll be blind again."
"I want to be in and out;" Darien said, "hopefully before the Polians know we're there." He looked over at Lauren and Masconi, "You two take the EV-II's, I am going to use the Excalibur and the rest of the Black Knights to drive him while you two intercept him."
"Affirmative," Masconi said uncoiling herself from her seat.
"Good luck," Darien said, moving forward to his command chair watching while his crew spread out and prepared for the coming battle, knowing it was going to be rough.
* * *
Arcanis was an immense world, three times the size of Earth; it shone with a city sprawling across over ninety percent of the planet. Its population numbered in the trillions, alien and sentient races from across the Polian Alliance called the capital world home, the seat of their government for over two thousand years.
Great spaceports and orbital habitats hung in space around the planet as thousands of agricultural platforms dotted the habitable zone of the single yellow star, maximizing the efficiency of the system and ensuring there was food for the entire population.
The Million Tears entered the Arcanis system, the trade liner dwarfed by the massive defence platforms that sat on the edge of the system capable of saturating the space around them with enough firepower to deter even the most powerful of fleets.
Hidden from their sensors, riding in the wake of the trade liner's mighty engines, the Imperial strike cruiser slipped past the outer defences unseen. On board, her crew collectively held their breaths as the ship rattled and jumped as it was buffeted by the engine wake that was their sanctuary.
Darien held onto the arms of his chair as the ship vibrated watching the tactical displays for any sign of Kendrick's EV-II. He had to be there, trying to find his own way through the outer defences to make a run at the planet. Desperate and alone, gripped by Kardiac's madness…
Darien gritted his teeth knowing they would have to break from the Million Tears soon. They needed to find him, to be able to direct their attack against him and drive him into the trap.
* * *
Down on the hanger deck Masconi and Lauren were suiting up and boarding their EV-II's ready to become avenging angels. Lauren's face tightened as she shut her mind on the emotions that were warring inside her, thoughts of the betrayal and the man she had fallen in love with.
Masconi caught the look, ducking her head under the wing of the ungainly fighter. "Are you going to be ok?" she asked in concern.
"I'll be fine," Lauren reassured. "I'll be on your wing the entire way."
'Good," Masconi said, glancing over to where Flight Lieutenant Katz, her new Exec for VMA-23, was briefing the squadron on their role. And she knew that the blood Kendrick had spilled had soaked her flight deck, that everyone there had some kind of vendetta against their former leader, and she hoped to god that bloodlust wouldn't get them all killed.
She climbed up into her fighter, nodding to her plane captain; it was time to get on deck.
* * *
Kendrick's fighter shrieked through the Polian outer defences, jettisoning its external fuel tanks as its boosters kicked in and propelled it past the Polian defences so fast that none of them had a chance to react to it.
The Station attempted to track the agile craft, its missile batteries swinging to get a solid lock, but it was too late. Kardiac, hundreds of years in his grave, began to smile.
* * *
"The Polians just went to high alert," Kit reported. "They are scrambling to intercept a high-speed object that matches the profile for Kendrick's EV-II."
"Got you," Darien stated. "Stand by to break from the trade liner's wake."
The ship vibrated, a shaking that caused a loose blast plate to rattle loudly. It was enough to break Darien's concentration as he pointed at it absently, "Someone secure that plate. Helm bring us another point starboard in line with their wake and increase speed fractionally. We will attempt break away when engineering gives us the all clear…" The ship rose heavily, as if she were cresting a wave, and plummeted out from under them. Years of experience had long ago taught the captain how to ride a pitch and roll and he bent his knees into it keeping his feet almost effortlessly.
He walked back and stared at Nazzien's console, "Range to target?"
"6000 Kilometres, Skipper," the officer replied.
"Captain," Kit broke in, "Excalibur has details on the engine wake, and I'm routing navigational information to the helm." He was tapping the rims of his glasses thoughtfully as he spoke, "The amount of turbulence around the trade liner is quite high." The holographic Commander paused, "With a little tweaking, the lateral sensor arrays should give the conn. enough warning to weave through the worst of the turbulence."
The midshipman who had replaced Lauren at the helm looked up;"Our current vector has us pulling away from the trade liner within the planned timeframe. Everything is in the green with our simulations."
Darien exchanged a look with his weapons officer, aware that things were now out of their hands. Their lives were now squarely in the hands of the helmsman and engineers. Darien thumbed a toggle on the arm of his command chair. "Mister Elias, we are in position, how are we looking?"
In engineering chaos reigned; a console in front of him flickered and died, springing back to life showing the diagnostic console for the primary power matrix; overlaid were the structural pressure output diagrams. He held his breath as he activated the new configuration.
On the bridge the lights dimmed and flickered a moment and flared back to their normal illumination. Throughout the ship sighs of relief were audible.
"Yet another technical marvel brought to you by your resident Techno-Wizard extraordinaire! We are good to go, and on a side note," he said walking through showers of sparks from overloading equipment, "I expect my tummy rubbed as much as I want once we get through this!"
Darien flashed a puzzled look at Nazzien, who simply smirked at his captain, "Very well, Mister Elias… I am certain we can arrange something… " He toggled another control, "All hands stand by; we will begin our manoeuvre in moments."
The deck heaved again, Darien shifting his weight to match it, his hand resting on the command chair for support. Around him his officers were readying for the operation. He clasped his hands behind his back as he turned to face the trade liner on the main holographic display. For the moment she was the enemy. Not by action or volition, but by circumstances, and he was treating her as such. In his mind he was working through a series of counter scenarios. Contingency plans. Ideas within ideas, plans within plans.
"Helm, take us into the gravity well."
Behind him Kit ordered, "All hands brace for impact."
Excalibur reacted like a piece of wood tossed into a maelstrom. The captain found himself tossed unceremoniously into his command chair as the Excalibur fought her way out of the wake. She shuddered and bucked again, but her bow turned slowly, riding the trade liner's engine wash. The Tri-sailed vessel powered her way towards her goal.
Down in engineering the primary engineering console redlined and flickered back into the green. Somewhere a power relay blew out. Elias scrambled across the deck and depressed the engine override, pouring more power into the gravitic drive engines. "Hey, you guys want to keep her steady up there. I like a roller coaster as much as the next guy but…"
Skilfully the Excalibur neared the edge of the wake-falling at extreme velocities would be the best description of her passage. And the captain clung on to the arms of his command chair, his teeth tightly clenched. Those nearest to him could hear the mumbled lines of a Latin prayer.
"We're breaking free," Kit announced standing back by the command chair. "The trade liner is powering her weapons…"
Darien pushed himself upright in the chair, "Ok, let's keep her together long enough to get out of range of that ship…"
The deck heaved again as the trade liner opened fire. Its main particle batteries slammed into the Excalibur's upper engine sail; the second shot tore through the armour plates, crackling energy spreading up and down the length of the sail incinerating plating and punching through support braces; the upper engine pod detonated explosively.
On the bridge the Excalibur bucked beneath the onslaught spiralling to port as she listed. Darien held on for dear life as the other two drives stabilized the ship and swept her away from the trade liner towards her target, trailing the wreckage of one of her engines.
"Damage report!" Darien demanded clawing to his feet.
"Number three engine destroyed," Kit reported as he flickered into and out of existence. Around the bridge, control panels mirrored the failure, "Command line interfaces damaged…"
"Launching all fighters," Nazzien cut in. "Powering up weapon systems and dispatching damage control teams…"
"Where's Kendrick?" Darien asked crossing the deck, watching the flickering tactical display as it tracked Kendrick's fighter and showed the Polian defence fleet steering about to intercept the Imperial warship that had breached their defences.
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