April 20th, 2260 08:20
Earthforce secret research base on Nereid.
"Captain Shane? General Taggart will be with you shortly."
Captain Edward Shane turned from the porthole to face the young sergeant. He noticed right away her Earthforce uniform was in disarray. It was wrinkled and dirty, a purplish stain of something covered her jacket's sleeve. Almost unconsciously he ran his hand on his own uniform. His clothes were pristine, neatly pressed and clean. His hand rested on his Nightwatch black armband. He made sure it was straight and proper on his arm.
Shane made a point of wrinkling his nose at her untidy military uniform. A glance at her identification tag right below the Earthforce emblem named her as A. Wilson. A blush of humiliation rose on Sergeant Wilson's face as she saw his disapproval.
"I'm sorry, sir," she said while her eyes were cast down. "I just came from working in the environmental processor. I…uhh…didn't realize I had gotten so dirty."
At least Wilson had the good graces to be embarrassed by her appearance, considered Shane. When he took command, he would make sure everyone here understood they were professionals and needed to dress accordingly.
"Sergeant Wilson, I thought you were the acting yeoman for the Valiant. What are you doing working on the environmental controls?" inquired Shane as he mentally placed her name on the list of personal for the top-secret ship.
"I am, sir" she answered quickly. "But we're all working around the clock to get the Valiant operational. And well, the environmental systems for the Valiant are…umm…a bit unusual."
Shane let his head nod slowly. "I have familiarized myself with ship's background." He craned his neck, looking past Wilson trying to see what was behind her. It was a futile effort to see the craft beyond the circular black transport tube connecting the military base to its most prized possession. "I do look forward to seeing her."
With more than a little touch of pride in her voice, Wilson answered. "Yes sir, there is nothing like her out there. Every race, hell even the Vorlons, will be envious."
There was a long pause after her devoted reverence for her ship which quickly grew into an awkward silence. Shane made a point of a casual dismissal of Sergeant Wilson by turning back to the docking hub's large single porthole. Outside the wide blue disk of Neptune hung unmoving in the sky.
Behind him, Wilson cleared her throat and said, "Sir, I'll just check with the General. See what's keeping him."
"Yes," replied Shane faintly, "please do."
When she left and Shane certain he was alone he touched his hand link. A beep followed and he spoke into the device. "Lieutenant Monroe."
A brief pause and then the clipped tone of Lieutenant Jessica Monroe on board the EAS Aegean answered, "Yes, sir?"
"Lieutenant," said Shane smoothly, "I want this little transition of command to go without incident."
"My men and I are ready," replied the Lieutenant. "Just say the word."
Shane's smile widened. "Excellent, take your men and enter the station. Assume control…quietly."
"Right away, sir."
Shane had just cut his link when General Robert Taggart pulled himself into the docking hub. Tall and lean with a head of graying hair, the General had the body of an athletic runner even though he was over sixty. In the microgravity of Neptune's moon, he maneuvered effortlessly, using the transport tube's hand and feet holds to bring him to a gentle rest before Shane.
"Captain Edward Shane," said Taggart with a quick salute. A smile and an extended hand swiftly followed, "a pleasure to meet you."
"Likewise, Sir," replied Shane as he returned the salute and then took the General's offered hand. He noticed the man's uniform was spotless. Except for the lack of the Nightwatch band on the General's dress jacket, he was dressed just like Shane. His uniform was a point in the Taggart's favor thought Shane, too bad the man had shunned Nightwatch and all the opportunities the organization could provide.
"So you want to take a look at the Valiant," said the General gamely. "You must be liked by someone back in Earthdome." Taggart's eye sized Shane up quickly. "Not something most captains would be able to do," he added.
"Well General Taggart," replied Shane a little stiffly. "You may have been busy out here in the waste end of the solar system and not have noticed, but since the attack on Ganymede, we are under martial law."
"I am busy," intoned Taggart a little sharply. "However nor am I blind or deaf. Half the galaxy is in freefall chaos."
"Then you can understand why I'm here," defended Shane, a little put out by the man's tone. "With everything going on, the political climate is very delicate. President Clarke wants to ensure all of Earth's forces are…on the same page."
A sigh welled up from Taggart. "I've worked rather hard to stay out of Earthdome's dogmatic machine. So I don't care much for your political climate." With a wave of his hand, he indicated the Nereid military base. "This station is hardly a civilian operation and the order for martial law has no bearing here. Nor is anyone here who hasn't been through a very rigorous background check. There are no spies or saboteurs here."
Shane saw the man's confusion. The General believed his capacity to operate and command one of Earthforce's secretive compounds was being called into question. It was an easy mistake to make. But Edward Shane was not here for the man's ability, he was here for the man's loyalty.
Bowing his head, Shane crooned, "I understand General Taggart. I didn't mean to call into question the work you're doing here. We all know you've done outstanding work. All of us back in Earthdome are keen to see the Valiant operational."
Taggart's face relaxed. It was subtle movement but Shane was fast enough to catch the minuet change. It was always best to play to someone's ego. Shane knew General Taggart had lived and breathed his current assignment for the better part of last three years. The man had invested himself entirely in the salvaging and retrofit of the alien ship.
"Hmm…" hummed Taggart to himself. A tiny grin forced its way onto his face. "Well if you've come all this way, best to show you what the taxpayers have spent the better part of three billion credits on."
"Of course, General," replied Shane with a slick smile of his own.
In the almost nonexistent gravity of the base, Taggart spun one hundred and eighty degrees with a simple twist of his body. Then with just the smallest of kicks with one foot he launched back down the interconnecting tube. The man's speed surprised Shane and he found himself having to rush after him down the passageway.
"I can tell you've never severed on a Hyperion-class cruiser," said Taggart over his shoulder as the man nimbly manipulated the handholds along the accordion-like tube connecting to the Valiant. Shane struggled to keep up without careening into either side of the plastic walls.
"I severed on board the Furies for a time," answered Shane as he worked to right himself. The Omega class destroyer with its spinning crew section had provided near Earth normal gravity. He had never been any good at low g environments. It seemed every time he moved he caused the plastic conduit they were in to bounce about.
Taggart reached out and steadied Shane. "Like this," the older man instructed. He helped Shane loop his foot through a narrow ring on the floor. The foothold helped stabilize him and then reaching up he could pull himself along on the same handholds Taggart was using.
"I practically grew up on those Hyperion and old Nova class ships," reminisced the General. "If we weren't under thrust, we had to do everything in zero-g."
"It must be a relief then to work in the Valiant," broached Shane, still a little embarrassed by his clumsy earlier performance.
Taggart was quiet for a moment and then said, "It does, after a fashion."
The connecting tunnel opened up and at first Shane thought he was at the ship's air lock. But instead, he found himself in a large plastic bubble. It bridged two of the long snake-like tubes connecting to the vessel. Unlike the dark connecting tube they had just transverse this plastic was clear. It offered an unrestricted view of the massive cargo hold that held the Valiant.
Shane gasped as he took in the sheer size. The bay was nearly two thousand meters across and more than double the length. The distant walls were dark gray of carved out rock. A hollowed out section of Neptune's moon hid one of Earthforce's most closely guarded secrets. And there it was, the EAS Valiant, nestled like a precious stone wrapped carefully and protectively in the center of this enormous man-made cave.
"It's quite the sight, isn't?" said the General softly to Shane's side.
"It is indeed," breathed Shane. He was awestruck as he gazed out at the ship. He had seen photographs, video, and schematics of the ship. But none of them did it justice. Scaffolding wrapped around the ship and dozens of flexible conduits like the one they were in ran from the base into the vessel. The ship itself was lit up by hundreds of lights throughout the bay and making its dark blue surface almost…glow. Light reflected and refracted off its crystal-like hull.
Hull…Shane wasn't even sure that was the right word for the ship. Perhaps skin? Or shell? Long and sharp points defined the craft. He had heard some of the upper brass call it the crystal knife. Now seeing up close, Shane had to agree. It was a long jagged knife of a ship, from the point at the bow it arched gracefully back. The middle of the ship, the spine of the knife, rose up in a gentle curve until it reached near the end of the ship. There, in what would be the hilt of a blade, long arching spines grew out at odd angles around what Shane knew was the vessel's engines. A knife nearly three thousand meters long.
Tetragonal and hexagonal shapes were everywhere on the ship. From small little nodes on the edges to the massive spires at the rear. Almost all of the various crystalline structures were of either dark blue or deep sea green. But one of the spires caught his eye, near dead center of the beam of the craft, was hued a dark crimson red.
"It's a cannon," explained Taggart as he saw Shane's observation of the long ruby-colored spike at the center of the ship.
"Really? What type? Is it functional? What kind of power requirements does it have?" blurted out Shane.
Running his finger along the plastic shell, tracing the length of the red spire, General Taggart spoke formally, a bit of a well-rehearsed speech. "The simplest way to describe it would be to call it electromagnetic rail gun. It's the easiest way to grasp what it does without reading through a hundred pages of research on quantum electrodynamics."
Shane frowned. "That doesn't sound very powerful. We've had rail guns for centuries. There are far more formidable weapons out there."
"Ah," smiled General Taggart, "But we've never had one that could launch several thousand tungsten alloy slugs at once. Each one going at about two percent the speed of light and each hitting with the kinetic force of about 15 kilotons of TNT."
"And keep in mind," continued the General, "The Valiant has a targeting precision of about half a centimeter over ten million klicks. And every one of those projectiles can be individually targeted. It can be fired as a cloud, focused into one sustained blast, or anywhere in between. Putting it in laymen's terms it's like firing a shotgun and controlling where every pellet goes."
Shane could not stop the low whistle that came out of his throat. Deeply impressed he murmured out a soft "Wow."
"Com'on," said General Robert Taggart, grinning like a little boy. "Let me give you a tour."
They made their way down the next and last connecting conduit. Shane was moving a little more confidently, finally managing to travel with some sort of decorum in the weak gravity. They were nearing the end, the Valiant's airlock was just ahead when General Taggart stopped him.
"When you move past this point, the artificial gravity of the ship will start to pull on you. What you think of as ceiling will quickly turn into the floor. If you're careful, you can do a small jump and flip over and land on your feet."
"Umm," stammered Shane, uncertain if he could pull off the maneuver Taggart was explaining.
"Don't feel bad if you just end up belly flopping onto the floor, plenty of us have been in the exact same place."
Hesitantly, Shane took a shallow step forward and then another. He did not feel it at first, but gradually he could perceive something pulling on him. Every inch closer to the mouth of the airlock the pull on him strengthened.
"Whoa," cried Shane as he felt his body slipping upwards. He tried to flip himself like Taggart had explained but he only ended up flailing his arms about as he rose up.
And then suddenly what was up was now down. Shane found himself on his hands and knees on a padded cushion laid out on the airlock's floor. Beside him, Taggart was standing, but only on one leg. The other leg folded awkwardly up against his body. Balancing rather precariously on one foot, the General reached out and grabbed a wooden cane resting on one side of the airlock.
With an audible thump, Taggart pressed the end of the cane into the floor while holding its ornate handle to straighten himself out. Leaning on his cane, the General saw Shane's surprise and said, "Artificial gravity is nice, but there are some disadvantages for me."
Rising unsteadily to his feet, Shane tried an apologetic smile. It did come off as particularly genuine. He had read about the General's war wound, but the man had moved so fluidly in the weak gravity Shane had forgotten. "Forgive me, I didn't realize," he said while gazing at Taggart's lame leg. "Are there no treatments?"
"Neurological damage from Minbari weapons don't heal particularly well," replied the General darkly. "And I've never cared for artificial replacements." He shook his head while looking down at his damaged leg. "Don't worry, it's not that bad. I'm able to get around well enough even in high-g thrust."
"Yes, umm, right," nodded Shane, eager to move from the unpleasant topic.
Looking around, Shane found himself feeling rather disappointed. Given the unique structure of the craft he had assumed the interior would be just as strange. Instead it was the simple ridged metal and plastic frame of a cramped airlock. It looked like any found on an Earthforce ship, right down to the emergency override handle positioned near the inner door.
"Is this…" and Shane indicated the airlock's design with a confused frown.
General Taggart took his cane and rapped it against the wall of the compartment. It made a dull ringing noise. "A retrofit," he answered. "Most of the airlocks on board the Valiant have gone through upgrades to allow for easier access and to hook into the standard docking tubes."
"The original airlocks couldn't be used?" asked Shane.
"Captain Shane," lectured Taggart, "you need to understand whoever built this ship meant for it to be virtually impregnable. It took us nearly three months to cut our way into the first airlock. Replacing them with an Earthforce standard design has made it considerably easier to get in and out."
Crossing through the inner airlock doorway, they entered something akin to an antechamber. Unlike the human built compartment behind them, this room was clearly designed by alien hands. Laid out in an octagonal shape it had four arched doorways leading deeper into the ship. While the floor appeared to be polished silvered steel, the walls, and the ceiling looked like the room had been carved from one giant crystal. The ceiling, a good three meters above their heads, arched up and then back down in a semi-irregular pattern. Colored a deep blue Shane could help but think it look like a pool of water where someone had tossed in a stone, ripples on a pond. The unmoving waves all encircled a single shining bright blue-white crystal lighting up the entire space.
Shane looked about, trying to get his bearings in this strange room. "Do we still have no idea who built this ship?"
"None really," replied Taggart. "Originally there was some thought the Lumati might have built her, given some of the similarities to the Valiant we'd seen in their ships. But as we learned more about the Lumati we quickly ruled them out."
"But we must have some idea what race was able to create..." and Shane swung his arm around the crystal room "…all this. I mean the reports I've read…"
Taggart interrupted him with a snort. "You've been reading Professor Stones' reports." The General shook his head wearily. "I have to continually rein that man in. He's all over the place with his speculations."
"His theories about some extinct warrior race who created this ship to fight in some massive war?"
"Just guesses on the Professor's part," answered Taggart as he began to move down the center passage. He walked with just a hint of a limp, his wooden cane providing him the needed support. Regular sets of 'tap…tap' came as the tip of the walking stick hit the metal floor.
As they walked through the arched doorway of the chamber Taggart pointed at it with the end of his cane. "What we do know for a fact about our mystery builders we've inferred from the Valiant herself. Almost every room, corridor, and doorways are, at least, three meters tall. So we believe they were taller than us on average."
Now they were walking down a long hexagonal shaped corridor. More blue-white gems jutted from the ceiling, lighting their path. "They also likely saw into the ultraviolet end of the spectrum from the light coming from these crystals."
Walking along Shane fought down the urge to ask more questions about the ship. The marvel and sheer size of the Valiant were causing him to get distracted from his true mission. Once he was in command, he would have plenty of time to learn all her secrets. It was time to get down to business.
"General," he broached carefully. "I've heard your arguments that the best use of this extraordinary vessel is to retrofit her for operational duty. Do you still hold to this theory?"
Taggart did not immediately respond. They continued walking in a growing uncomfortable silence, only broken by the soft taps of the General's cane.
Shane was nearly ready to continue when Taggart suddenly began to speak. "When I took command of this base the research teams were still hacking off chunks of the hull or equipment inside with the idea if they could take this ship apart so they could learn how it worked. Poking at it like we were an army of monkeys trying to figure out a modern day shuttle."
"The technology on this ship is revolutionary," argued Shane. "Artificial gravity, gravimetric propulsion, a hull capable of regenerating and re-growing damaged sections. Unlocking how any one of these systems worked could leap frog us ahead of the others races."
General Taggart shook his head slowly. "I don't disagree with you, Captain. I am quite eager to produce a whole fleet of ships like the Valiant. But our crude attempts at dismantling this ship had been a complete failure. My plan has been to get her operational. Fly the Valiant with an actual crew and as we did, we would learn how it all works."
"Earthdome no longer agrees," said Shane simply. He found he took no joy in delivering the news. The General was seemingly an amicable enough man and had worked hard to turn the derelict alien ship into something useful. It was not his fault things had changed.
Taggart's eyes narrowed. "Just what are you saying, Captain Shane?"
Best to pull the Band-Aid off in one pull, considered Shane. "My orders are to take control of the Valiant. Since her engines are still nonfunctional, she'll be towed to the shipyards above Mars. Interplanetary Expeditions will take over the job of learning how the ship works."
The General just stared at him wide eyed. "You will retain command of the Nereid base," continued Shane briskly. "My understanding is there will be new ships to be built here and we'll need your expertise in working with advanced alien technologies."
"No." It was General Robert Taggart's only response.
Sighing, Shane implored, "Let's not make this difficult General Taggart, shall we? My orders come directly from President Clark. I know this project has been important to you. But now I will…"
"No," said Taggart again, interrupting Shane. It seemed his friendly smiles were just a thin veneer over the much harder man underneath. All the pleasantries had gone out of him. Now the General's face was cold and ruthless. "You're not going to do a damn thing."
So it would be the hard way, after all, reflected Shane dispassionately. A pity. Touching his link, he called for Lieutenant Monroe. "Lieutenant…" he began but got no further when Taggart swung his cane in a tightly controlled arched and struck Shane in the head.
The blow knocked Shane to his knees. Agony radiated from the side of his face where the handle of the walking stick had hit him. Shane could not believe the man would attack him so brazenly. He knew he should have brought his PPG with him. Struggling back to his feet, he yelled into his open link. "Lieutenant! I need assistance now! General Taggart has attacked me…"
Thunk! came the blow as Taggart hit him again with his cane.
He had tried to block the blow, but the General was very fast with his simple weapon and Shane collapsed back to the steel floor of the Valiant. His vision blurring, he saw Taggart looming above him and he commanded "Shut up!" Then opening his own comlink the General called out, "Jessica, are you and your men aboard?"
"Of course, General," came the sound of Lieutenant Jessica Monroe over the Taggart's links. Her voice was cordial, almost amused. "Sounds like you're having problems with Captain Eddie."
"I've dealt with enough snakes in my time," replied Taggart as he glared down at Shane. "I can handle one more."
"I know, sir. But I've had to put up with the little maggot since leaving Io Station. I'd be delighted to toss him out an airlock."
On the floor, his head throbbing miserably, Captain Edward Shane gaped at General Taggart. Stunned by both the blows and the betrayal. Shane had just assumed he was in control. He had the orders. He had the men. He was Nightwatch. This was to be his greatest assignment.
Leaning down, Taggart glowered angrily, "Earthdome must really not think much of me if they sent the likes of you to take me down."
"You won't get away with this!"
Taggart raised his arm holding his walking stick. Its handle was now bloodied. Shane shrank back in fear.
"Now listen to me you miserable little pissant," began General Taggart. "Your ability to continue to breath is going to be completely dependent on you doing exactly what I say. You will help me and my people get the hell out of here."
"Where do you think you can go?" sniveled Shane weakly. "The Aegean is under orders to take this station apart if you don't comply with the President's orders."
A smile, a small one, returned to the General's face. "I don't need the Aegean. I've got my own." He tapped the end of his cane twice against the steel floor.
The man was insane, realized Shane. "Are you crazy? The ship's engines don't work!"
"On the contrary, my dear Captain Shane," replied a smug Robert Taggart. "The ship's engines are fully functional. I've poured the last three years of my life into making her live again."
He gazed, almost reverently, around the crystal walls of the ship and said, "The Valiant is mine and I'm taking her!"