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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 - 9. Chapter 9

I have fought so many battles, seen so much blood.
The most memorable of these was the battle for
the Apilon Rift. It was there, in that forge of hell that
the Red Guard earned their mettle. It was there that
I learned to do what had to be done, no matter the cost.

-VonGrippen 'Meditations'

Trade-liner Protania

The bursar didn't even look at their travel papers; he waved them past the security checks, completely ignoring them. A few disgruntled passengers stared after them, wondering how it was they got special treatment, but the fact they were wearing military uniforms, unfamiliar ones at that, probably gave them special privilege.

The porter took their kit bags, guiding them through the massive ship towards their cabin, a small room tucked away from the rest of the passengers. It was the best that Lauren could manage-a single double bed and a couch thrust up against the wall; not exactly a luxury liner, but then they were travelling Steerage class.

The Protania was a massive collection of pods and modules held together by a delicate framework and attached to a massive vessel that towed them through space. Darien's first impression of the vessel was that it was an intergalactic train; cargo pods were intermixed with passenger pods in a great caravan bound for the farthest reaches.

The former crew of the Dragonfly settled into their cabin. Kendrick was faster off the mark than the other two, spreading out on the couch leaving the other two to share the bed. Darien sighed to himself, tucked his bags away and checked with Elias to make sure the arrangements were okay with him. The other man was still upset at the loss of his ship, but he offered a small smile to say that he didn't mind.

That was the nature of their friendship, Darien thought to himself, they had become used to a certain amount of intimacy. Perfectly natural to people cooped up together for so long, there was nothing more to it than that. He rationalized it away as he sat down to await the launch.

The large vessel detached itself from the station; its powerful engines pulling its cargo along behind it as it turned towards the jump gate and the universe beyond. The Amsus vessels challenged it as it crossed past the station and approached their gate nexus, and the captain of the vessel powered down the ship as he transmitted his cargo, passenger and crew manifests to the flagship of the battle group waiting for clearance.

Darien caught up with Lauren as she was heading towards the forward section of the ship. She looked good dressed in a more formal dress uniform than was worn by the crewmembers of the trade-liners. There was a rigid formality presented for their guests, some of whom paid a lot of money to travel in the luxury offered by the Protania.

"What's going on?" he asked cautiously. He stuck his hands into the pockets of his leather jacket, glad that Lauren had arranged it so he could carry his PKD aboard.

"Nothing to worry about," she reassured as they passed a large view port that showed the majesty of the human-built jump nexus. "We're just waiting for clearance from the Amsus battle group. It's routine, it just takes them a little while to verify all the data we sent to them."

He glanced out at the collection of deadly ships blocking their path.

"Relax, there's nothing to worry about," she assured. "The captain has been doing this for years." She stepped aside to allow a maintenance crew past carrying spare parts to be stowed away before the jump.

Darien nodded, "I'll feel better after we're clear of this area."

"We'll all feel better once we're clear of the Amsus," Lauren agreed. "If it makes you feel better you can accompany me to the bridge; you've been cleared aboard this ship as mercenaries hired by the Orion government so no one will ask any questions."

Darien nodded his thanks-that explained why they were allowed through without any checks. The Orions relied upon mercenaries to protect and crew their ships, they paid good money to earn their loyalty. He realized that was probably how Lauren had come to work for them.

He followed her into an elevator and they were soon whisking their way towards the drive section of the great liner where the bridge hung suspended above the massive engines. He stepped out onto the broad area with its catwalks and multi-tiered design that was typically Orion.

The captain, dressed in a sweepingly ornate uniform, stood with one hand behind his back, his ivory eyes locked on a holographic display floating above the bridge. It showed the local area in great detail, right down to the Amsus vessels blocking his path.

He rested his other hand on the rail and glanced down at Darien. "Captain Taine, it's a pleasure to meet you," he said jovially. "We should be clear of this checkpoint shortly and on our way. How are you finding your accommodations?"

"Cramped," Darien replied with a smile, "but they'll do fine, thank you for your help."

The Captain offered him a nod, turning his attention back to the hologram before him. Lauren gestured for Darien to follow her to her station tier, taking her seat and showing him the ship on a display, "She's the pride of our corporate fleet, our ambassador to the far reaches of nowhere," she explained. "She's nearly a kilometre long from bow to stern and capable of independent operation for up to ten years."

"Impressive ship," Darien conceded. He glanced up to the captain who was talking into his headset, issuing orders to his crew, preparing to get underway as soon as they were cleared.

"They're taking too long," Lauren said suddenly, looking up at Darien. "There's something wrong."

Darien tensed, noting that the captain was moving across his tier and barking orders now. Orions in various uniforms were scampering to and fro, and Darien knew from their actions that the captain was expecting trouble.

"What's he going to do?" Darien asked, his hand dropping to his PKD and resting it there.

"Two choices," Lauren admitted looking towards her captain. "He can surrender or he can make a run for it. We can't outgun an Amsus battle group in this ship."

"And if he surrenders?" Darien asked, not liking the way his mind was thinking.

"Then as soon as the Amsus board and find whatever it is they are looking for they kill every member of the crew to set an example to others thinking of smuggling in Hegemony territory." Lauren gave him a meaningful look, "This isn't your fault, Darien..."

"No, but if we surrender and your captain hands me over... trades me for the lives of his crew?"

The captain was moving back to his previous position, looking regal on the bridge of his ship, in command despite the dire situation that was unfolding.

Lauren shook her head, "It's not just you, we have a cargo pod full of contraband." She explained, "Even if we do turn you over, the Amsus will have to execute all of us out of principal."

Darien scrubbed his face tiredly, staring at the Amsus ships that hadn't made a move yet; they were still mulling over what it was they wanted to do, following the book to the letter as usual.

The captain looked down at Darien and tipped off a small salute, and when Darien offered him a puzzled look, he realized the captain had made his decision, and Darien held onto a rail.

"Flank speed!" the captain ordered. "Power all weapons and hold on tight."

The twin engines of the trade-liner roared to life, propelling the long vessel forward, much to the stunned surprise of the Amsus battle group who hadn't expected anything close to the level of suicide the Orion vessel was attempting. The cruisers and raptor-class frigates scattered as the mighty vessel ploughed its way forward.

Darien stared in wonder as the Amsus military discipline crumbled into chaos the moment someone did something unexpected, their ships trying to regain firing positions on the larger vessel. Those that did began to fire with energy cannons and cutting loose with missile volleys.

The trade-liner rocked as one of the missiles impacted with a fuel pod resulting in an explosion that ripped the pod free and spread burning plasma out into space. On the bridge of the large vessel, Darien was sent reeling backwards.

A pair of Raptors shrieked along the upper hull of the Protania, opening fire on the engines, hoping to take them down before the ship could make it any further, buying time for the larger cruisers and the battle ship to gain a firing solution. An explosion from the rear of the bridge of the mighty vessel threw debris across the broad decks, flickering the lights, but the engines remained active as the Raptors peeled away to come about for another attack run.

"We're not going to make it," Lauren warned, trying to get to her feet and pointing to the holographic display where another Raptor was matching their speed, extending its landing gears like deadly talons to secure itself to the Protania's outer hull a few cargo pods back.

"They're going to board us," Darien said, wrenching his PKD free and looking up at the captain.

The captain looked down at him and tipped his peaked cap, granting permission for Darien to accompany the crew already grabbing their own weapons from lockers and rushing back along the ship towards the breach.

He found himself sprinting through the ship, Lauren in tow, her own weapon drawn, knowing full well that if the Amsus were able to get to the drive section they would be able to stop the Protania's escape before it even reached the jump nexus.

The ship bucked and lurched as more Amsus weapons fire slammed into her majestic hull. They reached a hard point, beside a large set of doors that refused to seal. A ruptured water main above their head was cascading water down over them as they took up firing positions ready to hold off the Amsus shock troops that were spilling into the ship from the Raptor.

Darien wiped the water away from his face; it was like kneeling under a waterfall, the water streaming like a river back down the corridor towards the open door. At least the Amsus were fighting their way uphill, he thought dryly.

Nazzien and Shale joined them, appearing from a side passage, the hulking Taïrian hefting what looked like a machine gun; Darien hoped the heavy weapon would help them hold the forward section. He wished they had time to reach the hold where his Sentry guns had been packed away with Kendrick's fighter, but there simply wasn't time to find them.

The first Amsus trooper attempted to enter the hall, and was met with a hail of gunfire. His ceramic armour was no match for well-placed bullets that sent him reeling back through the door riddled with holes.

A second attempt was more co-ordinated, the Amsus laying down a barrage of cover fire from the doorway as they tried to slip into the hallway. But Shale was ready for them, the heavy weapon he was carrying spat death at a massive rate of fire, chewing through a belt of ammunition as bullets slammed into the door, through the bulkhead around it and forced the Amsus to reconsider their options again.

Nazzien was quick with a second belt, Shale flipping open the breech of his weapon to lay it in. It was at that point the world turned upside down.

Darien was slammed suddenly into the ceiling, feeling his breath knocked from him as the antigravity field in the corridor was reversed. It was all he could do not to lose his weapon as the AG-field righted itself again and he was sent sprawling back to the floor.

The rest of the defenders felt similar effects and tried to pick themselves up as the Amsus surged forward again through the opening during the confusion.

Darien propelled himself to his feet, instincts kicking in as he swung his weapon to and fro barking out shot after shot. The sonic weapon didn't care that the Amsus were wearing armour, the force of the impact sent them flying backwards again towards the door. He felt Lauren grab him by his leather jacket and pull him with her as the crew of the Protania began to retreat to a fall-back position, Darien covering their retreat as best he could.

"Nice toy," Nazzien commented as they found positions awaiting the third Amsus attack. Their numbers were thinning fast; without Shale's machine gun they were woefully undergunned, and Darien's PKD could only do so much to compensate.

"Thanks," Darien commented, leaning around to exchange another volley of fire with the Amsus advancing on them. The crash that followed sent everyone to the floor again, the lights going out, the emergency lights coming on a few seconds later revealing what had happened.

Darien struggled to get to his feet again to offer fire, but Lauren caught his arm as she pointed to the missile warhead that had smashed its way through the outer hull and was wedged in the corridor. "Hold your fire!" she bellowed as other crewmembers scrambled to their feet.

The Amsus at the far end of the corridor were staring in shock as well at how close they all had come to death. The missile groaned and shivered-if it pulled free it would open the compartment to space and kill everyone, if a rogue shot missed and struck the weapon it could detonate.

There was silence in the corridor as both sides debated what they should do, water still cascading down over them soaking them to the skin. An Amsus trooper made to raise his weapon, and was met by a slap from an officer.

"Mexican standoff," Darien said softly.

Outside, the Protania, trailing burning fuel and limping, neared the outer edge of the jump nexus. It was sacrificing for every inch; the big gun ships of the Amsus navy were in position and beginning to add the weight of their weapons-fire to the smaller vessels. The long vessel shivered and groaned as the powerful warships took turns blowing holes into its delicate aft sections. But it was too late for the Amsus; the Protania crossed the jump threshold and screamed into hyperspace.

The effect of the sustained jump caused everything to slow down as the time dilation swept over them. Every movement was slowed down. Darien broke free of Lauren's grip, swinging the PKD, using the time dilation to allow him time to aim; the weapon swung in precise motions, its fire slamming into the Amsus ranks as they strove to return fire. Their minds acted faster than their bodies as they realized it was too late to react.

He who hesitates is lost, and as the Protania slammed back into normal space, the five remaining Amsus troopers fell to the decks as Lauren caught his arm again.

"Are you nuts!" she screamed at him.

Darien relaxed his arm and she looked back down the corridor to the unconscious Amsus troopers slumped over their weapons, and she realized what he had done and grinned at him.

"Genius is oft confused with insanity," Nazzien remarked, gesturing to other Protania crewmembers to relieve the Amsus of their weapons. "We need to secure that Raptor!"

Darien was already moving forward, Shale and Nazzien hurrying behind him, as Lauren shook her head, gesturing for a couple of her men to follow while contacting the bridge to let them know about the un-detonated missile sticking out of their hull.

* * *

They crept along quietly through the damaged sections of the ship, past dead crewmembers that had been caught unawares by the Amsus shock troops. The water wasn't flowing down there, but the carpets on the deck squelched beneath their feet.

Darien gritted his teeth as he poked his head around a corner, glancing at the ragged hole in the ceiling of the corridor cut by the Amsus who had boarded-the boarding ladder had been extended down and was deceptively quiet.

Darien did some quiet mental math; the average crew compliment of a Raptor was about twenty, mostly troopers for search and seizure missions such as this one. He'd read their standard operations manual as a part of his Ter-Sec training. They sent fifteen men to board the ship they intended to capture, two remained behind to guard the hatch, two on the bridge and an engineer remained on board in case of trouble.

For once he thanked whatever deity was responsible for compelling the Amsus to be slaves to protocol. He took a deep breath and bent down to pick up a piece of debris that he tossed down the corridor so that it clanked loudly.

He tensed, slipping across the corridor and keeping his PKD levelled as Shale and Nazzien took up their firing positions to cover him. He could hear the low sound of voices as the two guarding the hatch called to their captain on the bridge of the ship, asking if they should investigate. No doubt they were wondering why their boarding party hadn't called back in yet.

Then there it was, the clanking as one of the guards came down into the corridor cautiously. The Amsus were slaves to protocol but that didn't make them stupid. He lifted his submachine gun as he swept the gloom of the corridor looking for signs of trouble, covering it as the second one came down to cover him.

Darien waited, counting off a silent count in his head, giving them enough time to get down, staring across the hall to Shale who gripped his pistol in huge paws waiting for his signal. Darien nodded finally and stepped around the corner opening fire.

Shale did the same, the bark of his pistol echoing in the darkness as the Amsus troopers dived for cover. One of them went down from Shale's shots while the second tried to alert the ship that they were under attack.

Nazzien sneered; standing up from his position he flicked on the laser sight of his own pistol and a single shot silenced the man before he could say a word into his radio. Darien nodded, sprinting to the ladder, climbing up it and into the belly of the Raptor as his two companions surged after him.

The inside of the Raptor was close and claustrophobic-dark alloy bulkheads lit by lights beneath the grill floor plates. It felt like a warship, the chatter of Amsus radio channels piping through the internal PA system repeated the frantic calls of the Amsus Captain for his missing crewmembers to report in.

Nazzien grinned coldly, his pistol held at the ready as he went off in search of the engineer, leaving Darien and Shale to move forward along the deck towards the bridge. Darien kept his eyes open as he kept his PKD trained down, moving rapidly forward along the neck of the Raptor towards the open bridge hatch. Shale beside him met his eyes and nodded as he slowed as well, letting the stealthier human go first.

The bridge of the frigate was small and cramped like the rest of the ship, bathed in darkness lit by red tactical lights and the light from consoles. Darien could see the captain's back, wearing his unimaginative black-on-black uniform as he continued to demand a report from his troopers who would never answer him.

Darien raised his PKD, and slowly squeezed the trigger; the captain, shot from behind, collapsed forward and there was the frantic sound of struggling as the pilot tried to get his weapon free.

Darien charged the rest of the way forward coming through the door as the pilot managed to get free from his seat and tried to lift his pistol. The PKD ended his hopes as it fired a final shot, trilling on empty as the Amsus collapsed.

Surprised, Darien lifted the weapon and blinked, thanking his luck that its charge had held out that long. He glanced over the tactical console scanning the Amsus scopes. He checked them over and whistled.

The sky around the Protania was filled with ships and he leaned down to look through the observation windows to see if they were Amsus. He didn't recognize their configuration, but they were definitely warships, lots of them, and they were taking up defensive positions around the battered trade liner.

Darien looked at Shale, who was securing the two unconscious Amsus officers; smiling, he lifted a beefy paw and tapped Darien's cap, smiling in pride at the Terran. Darien nodded, pleased with himself as well, and picked up the tactical comm. headset and switched it to a general broadcast.

"Raptor secured," he stated calmly.

* * *

The Protania was a mess; she'd taken heavy damage along her hull, and cargo pods had been ruptured or blown away entirely. The death toll had been high, and Darien picked his way through the wreckage of the bridge to look up at the captain of the vessel.

The captain shook his head. "I hear I have you to thank for stopping the Amsus boarders." he said climbing down from his catwalk, extending his hand in a very human gesture and shaking it firmly. "Thank you."

Darien shook his head. "I was just saving my own ass," he said with a slight smile.

The captain shook his head, "You're too modest, Captain Taine." He clapped him on the shoulder, "My people were never friends with the Imperials, but we dislike the Amsus more. Thank you."

"You're welcome," Darien responded looking up at the holographic display at all the unfamiliar ships. "The Commonwealth?"

"Indeed," the Captain replied. "The Amsus knew better than to follow us through to this Nexus, they don't want to provoke the Commonwealth into another war. Protania will be putting in for repairs at Eisenhower Station, it's going to take quite a bit of time to fix this mess."

"Is there anything I can do?" he offered.

The captain shook his head, "Not at all; it's going to take some time in a dry-dock patching holes. There will be another trade liner along to carry our passengers on to their destinations, but I have the feeling you're not the kind of man who can wait around for that ship to arrive."

Darien shook his head, "I can't stay; the longer I do the more chance that I'll be caught by someone after me. Just because I am out of Amsus space, won't stop them from trying."

"A man on the run never has a chance to rest," the captain nodded. "I owe you my ship, Captain Taine, but since she isn't going anywhere fast you should take the Raptor-after all it was your prize, you seized her."

Darien shook his head, glancing at the Commonwealth Fleet floating beyond the Protania in the shadow of their Jump Nexus. "Won't they take offence to me running around in a warship?"

"Amsus Raptors are hardly warships," the captain snorted, "but Commonwealth law is very specific on the matter-if you take it and can hold onto it, it's yours. They're very... touchy about sovereignty and individual rights, it's the reason they don't get on well with the Hegemony."

Darien nodded, "Thank you, Captain."

"You as well, Captain." The Orion smiled and nodded, returning to his inspection of the damage to his ship.

Darien took a long breath and turned from the bridge, seeking out Elias and Kendrick, hoping they were all right.

He found Elias sitting on the bed looking shaken, his legs drawn up against his chest. Darien stood in the doorway to the shadowy cabin, hesitant to enter. Finally, worry got the better of him and he entered and sat down on the edge of the bed.

"Hey," he said quietly in concern.

Elias rolled his head to look over at Darien. "Is it over?" he asked in a quiet voice.

Darien sighed and reached out and pulled the frightened young man against him. He was fast coming to realize that physical contact was the only way to steady Elias down when he was emotional. "It's over, we won," he said reassuringly.

He felt the young man shiver and relax. "You're okay?" the tiny voice again.

"I'm in one piece," Darien said with a smile, shaking his head at how close they were growing. They'd shared so much in such a short amount of time...

The door slid open and Kendrick stopped short. "Oh...umm...sorry..." he apologized, taking a step backwards to leave, embarrassed that he was interrupting a personal moment.

Darien stood up quickly and straightened his damp leather jacket, "No, no it's okay; you might as well know... umm, we captured an Amsus Raptor."

"What?" Kendrick looked surprised.

Elias straightened his head and looked equally as shocked.

Darien nodded, "The Protania's captain suggests we take it and get the hell away from here before the Amsus come after us." He glanced at Elias and tapped his arm, "I'm going to need your help getting her ready."

"I should have our equipment transferred aboard then," Kendrick stated nodding and turning, leaving Darien alone again with Elias.

The young engineer smiled faintly as he stood up and swallowed, "I'm sorry ... I'm not normally this messed up..."

Darien shook his head smiling at him, "After all we've been through... I think we should both be curled up somewhere bawling our eyes out. Come on, let's go figure out what kind of lemon these Orions are pawning off on us."

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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Amsus got their butts kicked and lost a lot more than Damien.  I like the Orion Commonwealth and not just because they hate the Amsus.  Eisenhower Station?  Could this be the home of the 5th Column?  

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Darien and Elias continue to bond. I'm delighted they got through and have secured a vessel in the process. 

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Nothing like the element of surprise...time for everyone to have a heart to heart talk...that means you Elias...what would the Raptor be worth in a trade for another ship...

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