The Falcon Banner - 42. Chapter 42
-A whisper in the dark
He stirred slightly, moving his hand across the series of controls, touching first one then another, completing the series of commands. It had taken a lot of resources, a lot of political collateral, but he had managed to recover the specimen.
His eyes looked up towards the heavily armoured bioroid across from him, moving around the diagnostic table, padding on its reversed kneelegs designed for high speed running that always reminded him of an animal's hind legs. Polians were little more than beasts to him anyway.
"You can cease that infernal pacing," he snapped, resting his hand on the edge of the console, again wondering at what was under the Polian's heavy armour plating; did it really resemble a devil underneath? Part of him wanted to strap it down and satisfy his curiosity. But there were other pressing matters for him to attend to.
"I pace because I must," the Polian responded in its own language, a deep guttural sound that reminded him of a wet fish being slapped repeatedly against porridge. "How long must I wait?"
Enarbrem Sul'Rikard glanced at the controls, and then over at the Amsus technicians busying themselves at the various stations in the laboratory, carrying out his complex orders. Diligent workers obeying their master without question, the Polian could learn from their example.
Rikard looked back at the impatient Polian, a distasteful sneer curling the corner of his lip. "These things take time," he replied in English. "We are reconstructing a living being from cellular residue... I shouldn't have to remind a Polian of the complexity involved in such a procedure."
The Polian's armoured helm turned to survey the bed where the nano-repair bots were labouring to reconstruct the being from the genetic blueprint that had painstakingly been recovered from the desolation.
"You assured us that this procedure would take no time at all..." the Polian replied, again in its own language. The Polian steadfastly refused to lower itself to speaking English.
"Time, as you Polians know all too well, is relative." Rikard smiled a tight smile, enjoying reminding the arrogant Polian of its own philosophy. He stepped around the console, shrugging on the Imperial great coat and smoothing down the black lapels, accepting the peaked cap that one of his Inquisitors extended to him.
"This Alliance depends upon your completion of your end of the bargain," the Polian responded levelling a heavy glare at him. "I want Captain Taine to pay for what he has done to my people."
"You have my word," Rikard reassured, inclining his head, the silver deaths head insignia upon the cap glittering in the sterile fluorescent light, "I have guaranteed it..." He smiled again as he reached down to brush the golden hair of the woman that was taking shape on the surgical table. "And what of your masters?" he asked looking again at the Polian.
The Polian extended its gauntleted hand, revealing the shard of crystal contained within it, "The gods always deliver on their word."
Rikard barked a short laugh, extending his own hand as the crystal shard flew into it. "We do," he replied in amusement.
* * *
She awoke with a start, her eyes flying open as she gasped a long breath into lungs that had never been filled. She coughed and choked as she sat up in the bed, calling out his name.
She stared around her at the lavish setting, the rich purple and red silks, and rich carpets, the intricately carved walls all inlaid with intricate patterns that were at first dizzying as she tried to follow them.
She reached up with her hand to cradle her head, biting her lip as she stood up, pulling the sheet around her to keep herself covered. Where was she? This wasn't...
A little, awed part of herself wondered if this was heaven. And as the door to her chamber ground open and the large armoured behemoth strode in, her awe turned to horror as she realized that it was hell...
She recoiled from it, as the creature reached out a massive hand to catch her face, pulling her up onto her tiptoes to stare into her eyes through a dark, polarized visor.
It intoned something in a strange language she didn't speak; wet slaps that barely sounded like speech, let alone a language.
She struggled weakly, cursing how frail she felt, her delicate hands pulling at the arm that held her, trying to get it to set her down.
"Release her!" the human voice commanded, and her half-focused eyes turned in panic towards the silhouetted figure in the doorway, the peaked cap and greatcoat.
"D-Darien?" she murmured before the pressure on her throat caused her to black out.
* * *
She awoke again in the bed, feeling the bruises around her throat, left there by her 'Devil' and she struggled upright again, shivering in the cool air as she pulled the sheets up around her, looking about desperately.
"He's gone," the heavily accented voice said, as she turned to look at the man in an Imperial uniform sitting in an armchair at the foot of her bed.
"W-where-?" she asked looking about her again.
"You are safe, for the moment," the voice said again, as the figure rose stepping into the pool of light around her bed.
She was taken a moment by the attractive man in his late forties, grey hair touching the wings of his temples, and close-trimmed goatee beard. She figured him for Mediterranean, but his accent most definitely placed him as South African. She stared a moment, before finding her voice again.
"Where am I?" she repeated firmly.
"You are aboard my ship," the tall stranger replied, leaning against one of the pillars of the bed and folding his arms, studying her. "Do you remember who you are?"
"Lieutenant Lauren..." She blinked and shook her head. "I-I can't be on a ship, there wasn't time... the missile."
"Yes," the man nodded, "a most effective weapon, your Captain Taine has an impressive arsenal at his disposal. The Polians are terrified."
Lauren blinked and shook her head. "No... it was..." She stopped and tried to clear the confusion from her head. "Who are you?"
"Enarbrem Sul'Rikard," he replied waiting for her reaction.
"You can't be; he's dead," she replied.
"So, technically, are you," Rikard responded, his upper lip twisting into a half smile. "Atomized in the destruction of Arcanis's primary moon. But then, death is only a minor inconvenience."
Lauren digested what he had told her, looking up at the man... At Enarbrem Sul'Rikard, the Chancellor of the old Empire, the political ruler of the height of humanity, the man that had presided over its inevitable fall. Long thought dead in the funeral pyre of the Imperial Palace when the Amsus had rained nuclear missiles down upon the structure, trying to eradicate the final resting place of the Immortal Emperor.
"What do you want with me?" she asked, fearfully glancing towards the door, and the devil that lurked beyond it.
"Captain Darien Taine," Rikard replied quietly. "You are going to give me Taine."
* * *
"Master," Inquisitor Thalak intoned, inclining its head as he approached.
Rikard held a troubled look on his face as he moved through the heart of his flagship, the collar of his great coat turned up, and his peaked cap pulled low as if to ward out the elements.
Thalak fell into step beside his master, keeping an even pace with the former Chancellor. "Why do we need the Polians?" Thalak hissed, keeping his voice low, knowing that it wasn't his place to question Rikard, but the wizened inquisitor had grown accustomed to a certain amount of latitude from the being that had created him.
Rikard remained silent, marching down the corridor, the deadly personal bodyguard remaining stoically oblivious to the conversation; but Thalak knew that if Rikard so much as raised a hand, the crack Amsus troops wouldn't hesitate to kill him. It was unsettling to a creature that was nigh on immortal.
"The Polians draw closer to their inevitable twilight," Rikard replied. "Their territory will be added to our own soon enough, for the time being they serve my purposes."
"Taine..." Thalak murmured, a hint of bitterness in his usually emotionless voice.
"Indeed," Rikard said softly, rounding a corner and marching onwards. "You made a mistake allowing him to escape in San Francisco."
Thalak stiffened, Rikard knew, but then again that was no surprise, Rikard seemed to know everything.
"I see that I have your attention now," Rikard replied coldly. "Good. I will find Captain Taine, and you will kill him and this time..." Rikard's voice was like cold steel, "do not fail me a second time in this, I want Taine dead."
"It shall be done, Milord," Thalak intoned reverently, saluting as he marched away.
* * *
Lauren swallowed as she walked around the opulent chamber that was her gilded cage. She ran her hands over the carved walls as she tried to find some other way out other than the heavily guarded doorway.
She was thankful for the Imperial uniform Rikard had provided her with in one of his eccentric visits.
She was growing accustomed to his unorthodox inquisition, charming in a cold and mechanical fashion; her gaoler would often dine with her, never once asking her a question, and at times they would eat in complete silence. The whole while he would watch her with those dark eyes, searching her soul for some hidden truth.
It was the Devil that put the true fear into her. His visits were swift and brutal, his questions were direct and incurred violent wrath if he didn't like her answers. But she was Orion-trained, and she couldn't tell him what she didn't know.
She realized, quickly, that the only thing stopping the Amsus and the Polians from throwing everything they had against the Excalibur was the fact that they were wary of the devastation caused by Kardiac's weapon. Loathe to risk their fleets against such potential destruction they held back, and Lauren knew that was buying Darien the time he needed to march on Earth.
The Devil's brutality, she knew, came from the devastation on Arcanis caused by the debris from the shattered moon falling through the atmosphere. Within minutes of the explosion the devastation would have been akin to a holocaust.
The Polians would be able to rebuild, terraforming their once beautiful and vibrant world back to its former glory. But that would take years, and would do nothing to stop the damage that had been wrought minutes and hours after the titanic explosion. Even with the scope of the Polian technology, not even they could magically restore an ecosystem buried beneath the dozens of meters of dust and debris, nor resurrect the life forms smothered by a chemically-altered atmosphere. The biotic catastrophe was a direct consequence of Kendrick's actions, and while he hadn't destroyed Arcanis, he had still managed to kill the world.
She rubbed her bruised ribs under the light tan uniform shirt, violence and an outlet of pain she could understand all to well. Her father's unwavering belief that suffering was good for the soul...
She closed her mind to that thought, focusing again on her current situation; she needed to get out of there, escape and warn Darien to the spider's web that Rikard and his Polian allies were weaving around him.
Her hand depressed a hidden switch and she stood back as the wall slid back, a massive twenty-foot-high section that glided away to reveal the windows, and the world far beneath them. She was a long way from home, and her eyes adjusted to look across the sparkling blue-green orb.
"It doesn't have a name," Rikard's voice said from behind her, and she turned, surprised that she hadn't heard him enter. Her captor was without his customary Imperial regalia, the bizarre perversion of his former life. Instead he wore a simple Inquisitor's uniform, open and undone with his hands in his pockets. "The world is really quite beautiful; I hunt there from time to time." He stepped forward, staring down from his vantage point over the world.
"What of the inhabitants?" Lauren asked, a cold chill seeping into her, as if anticipating his answer.
"What do you think I hunt?" he replied, an ease to the way he dismissed sentient life, his eyes glittering as he read her expression. "I could perhaps arrange for you to join me..."
"I'll pass," Lauren replied, setting her jaw and folding her arms. "It's been five days..."
"It has," Rikard replied, resting his fingers against the cold glass returning his gaze to the panorama beneath him, sighing almost contentedly.
"What happens to me once you grow tired of this game?" she asked, biting her lip and looking down at the world. Rikard was a man of sport, a man of the hunt. She again knew exactly what he was going to say.
"Then I will kill you again," Rikard replied, "unless you give me a reason why I should spare your existence."
"You know I won't." She drew herself up and squared her shoulders, trying not to shake, "I'm an imperial officer..."
"Mmm," Rikard nodded, "you are a fine example of why the Empire had to die." He turned to face her, "Defiant even to the end..."
"Why?" She rounded on him. "You ruled the empire..."
"I was an existence in a shadow." Rikard turned to walk from the chamber, pausing as he reached the door. "Now I cast the shadow. And I will not allow a memory..." he sneered, "to bring me down."
"Darien isn't a memory," Lauren shot back.
"He will be," Rikard vowed with cold malice as he swept from the room, his two Gestapo-clad inquisitors falling in to flank him.
* * *
Lauren closed her eyes; sinking to the ground at the foot of the great windows she drew her knees up under her chin and stared out at the world that orbited so far below her. She wanted to cry, but she was supposed to be too strong for that. She wanted to grieve for all that she had lost, but she wasn't even herself anymore. She was a copy, an echo of a memory, there would be no rescue this time.
Kendrick, her fallen paladin was dead. And she was alone.
At any time the Devil would return and begin his torment all over again and she would resign herself to that cold, lonely place within her own mind. That place where no harm could reach her, where she could still be herself no matter how many blows fell upon her body. How many times had her father sent her to that place as a child?
She rocked back and forth biting her lip so hard that it began to bleed. The taste of blood, and the sensation of pain reminded her that she was still alive. That while she may have died once, she was not dead. And as long as she was alive she was an Imperial officer, and Imperial officers didn't simply give in to their demons, no matter how heavily armoured they were.
Darien would never give up. Even now he was out there, amidst the stars fighting for freedom. The Striking Falcon... VonGrippen's vengeance, the Empire's legacy.
He'd taken a lost and broken girl and given her something to believe in. Given her the one thing no one could take away from her, no matter how much they tortured her.
She looked up at the door as it cracked open, the mechanical Devil marching in towards her, easily three feet taller than her and outweighing her by at least a hundred and fifty pounds.
"The bigger they are..." she said, uncoiling herself like a snake and curling to her feet, taking up an Orion martial arts stance as she balled her fists.
The Polian's head cocked to one side as it contemplated this sudden shift in his prisoner's behaviour, as if wondering what she hoped to accomplish.
Lauren sprang forward two steps propelling herself up towards the wall, pushing off of it as her boot swung around to connect with the behemoth's head, smashing it towards the ground.
The Polian careened into the bedpost, catching itself as it rounded on her. Lauren crouched like a cat ready to pounce again, a smile on her face as her hair fell across one eye. Those reversed legs were good for speed, but useless for balance, it was like the Imperial mechs of the same configuration, she remembered Marty telling her their biggest problem was stability.
She began to shift to the right forcing the Polian to turn, the creature moving its feet awkwardly to manoeuvre to keep facing her. That was a mistake, one she was happy to demonstrate to the Polian as she was up again, barrelling towards it as the creature moved with a sudden burst of speed to get away from the agile Human, who had just leapt away from its grip.
The Polian turned to face her again, pausing with what she could only imagine was surprise as the Imperial lieutenant straightened up, the Polian's own weapon in her hands, the large-bored energy weapon crackling with power as she cycled it up to charge, wiping the blood from her lip with the back of her other hand.
"Lesson one about women," she said raising the weapon: "Hell hath no fury..." And she discharged the weapon.
* * *
She slipped through the quiet corridors of the Amsus flagship, the Polian weapon heavy in her hands as she braced it in two hands sweeping around the corners and covered her passage. She needed out of that place, and the only ideas she had was to steal one of the Amsus shuttles, or the Raptor that would be docked with the upper landing pads on the dorsal hull of the flagship.
The problem was that she was alone and there had to be several thousand Amsus troops on an Amsus flagship, not to mention Rikard and his personal guard of Inquisitors. And even if she did make it to the Raptor, she would still have to run the gauntlet of the Flagship's guns to get clear and engage the jump drive.
"... and there's no proof," she heard the soft female voice saying further down the corridor, and Lauren paused trying to find a shadowy nook to hide in, "that the Peligians even existed, let alone that an entire city survived the Torvonian purge."
"It exists," Rikard said firmly, rounding the corner marching with his usual entourage and a roughly dressed human woman in a leather duster and low riding tilly hat. Lauren felt herself press even further into her alcove as she held her breath.
"Well, if you are so certain, why is it you can't tell me where Peligia is?" the woman pressed.
The former Chancellor rounded on her angrily, his hand snaking out to push the smaller woman forcibly against the bulkhead. "I haven't waited three hundred years because I felt like it," he said, his voice low and threatening, a coldly violent edge to his words. "You will find Peligia for me, and once you do, I will have the Oracle Device." He raised a finger and gently touched it to the woman's face. "I have little patience for failure these days..."
The woman nodded her head fearfully, "Y-yes milord..."
Rikard released her. "Raptor Three is prepped and ready for you, and I had your research loaded aboard it." He turned and began to march away, his usual guards following in his wake. "I expect results, Doctor Roberts, not more excuses."
The woman slid down the wall, no trace of her earlier arrogance evident on her face as she rubbed her throat, muttering a curse that stopped abruptly as she looked up into the large bore of the Polian disruptor, and past it into the hard-lined face of the young woman wielding it.
"Aww hell..." she swore, knowing all too well she was screwed.
* * *
The Amsus guards barely acknowledged the woman as she boarded the Raptor; they merely secured the Raptor and began pre-flight. Its usual compliment of shock troops were unnecessary for a routine courier mission for a scientific expedition.
Lauren kept her hat pulled low and the collar of her coat turned up as she followed the Amsus officer back to the cabin she was shown into. Her sweaty hand gripped the Polian pistol underneath a fold in the coat. She watched the officer closely as he made his way forward along the small ship towards the cockpit, leaving her alone to pace nervously feeling the ship's engines engage.
How long till they discovered the Polian body, or the bound-and-gagged Doctor Roberts who she had stuffed into an emergency locker. She tightened her grip around the pistol, any moment now and they would come for her, drag her back into that hell...
"Uhh Taylynn..." a voice called as the cabin door slid open.
She spun, the Polian weapon crackling up to full charge as the young human that had just entered the cabin gasped and dropped his box of books, his hands shooting up and going wide.
Lauren swallowed as she held the heavy weapon unwaveringly levelled at the young man, counting the heart beats as the distinctive whirr of the hyperdrive spooled up to full power.
The young man shook slightly, his eyes darting left and right as he tried to stop his shaking, a bead of sweat rolling down his forehead.
Lauren rolled her eyes, grabbed him and dragged him into the cabin as she slammed the door shut, the shuddering thump of the hyperdrive whisking her to freedom.
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