Chapter 16- Brewing Storm

You really couldn’t save a Royal Princess from the grasp of one of the galaxy’s most hated and feared men, evade six hundred warships, and not throw a party afterwards.  Kayto had just barely made it to his own quarters, desperate for some rest, before several crew members, Icari at their head, barged in and dragged him off to the mess hall, refusing to take “no” for an answer.If the last party had been impressive, the Sunrider’s crew outdid themselves this time around.  Liquor flowed almost as freely as the relief and mirth as Sunrider’s crew let loose and celebrated their victory.  Even though every part of his body screamed out for rest, Kayto smiled and laughed with the rest of the crew, sharing in the toasts and making the rounds to give the crew their well-deserved recognition before the crowd turned too drunk to remember.“Captain,” Icari’s voice came from behind as her hand slapped into his shoulder.  Coming around to his front, Icari grabbed him by the arm and lead him away from the gaggle of crew he had been talking to.  Steering him forcefully to an empty table, she plunked down on one side, clearly indicating he should do the same.  “That was one dashing rescue, Captain.  I wasn’t sure we were going to pull the second part off for a moment.”Kayto smiled as she tossed her head back and downed a shot before refilling her tumbler.  Unlike the ordinarily taciturn and reserved Icari that piloted the Phoenix, her inebriated state seemed much more upfront about her feelings.  “Wasn’t much choice except to pull it off,” remarked Kayto modestly.  “Asaga’s crew.”“Captain…” Icari shook her head with exasperation, tossing her long hair over her shoulder.  “One day, that big heart of yours is going to get you killed… I just hope I’ll be there to save your ass when that time comes.”

“I told you when you signed up with the crew, remember?  It might be harder, it might be deadlier, but we have to do what’s right, even if it seems stupid at the time,” Kayto sipped at his own drink.  “Plus, the fact that you and the rest of the crew are there to watch my ass makes it a lot easier to go on the tough missions.”

“Alright, alright,” Icari laughed and turned pink.  “You’ve made your point.  I… I guess I’m glad I came aboard.  But I’m still going to deny it when I’m sober.”

Kayto merely shook his head in amusement.

“But you know what this means, don’t you?” Icari asked, turning more serious and leaning closer to Kayto.  “The Alliance is going to have to act after the PACT did something as big as conquering Ryuvia.”

Kayto nodded thoughtfully.  “I suppose you’re right… I don’t know whether to feel good or bad about that.”

“It’s like I said at the beginning,” insisted Icari.  “What’s left of the Neutral Rim doesn’t stand a chance against the PACT on their own.  We’re down to the last few independent planets and that’s only because the PACT hasn’t gotten around to them yet.  We don’t have much of a choice except to work with the Solar Alliance.”

“The problem is what happens afterwards.”  Kayto crossed his arms.  “What happens to the Neutral Rim if the Alliance does beat the PACT?  The Alliance never does anything for free; we might just be trading occupation by one superpower for another.”

“It’s better that then bowing to the Veniczar,” Icari shrugged.  “You’re probably right, the Neutral Rim might never be quite the same again.”

“It’s not any better,” Kayto shook his head firmly.  “I’m not letting Cera become a colony of the PACT or the Alliance.”

“Well,” Icari threw up her hands in a show of exasperation.  “Hopefully the Solar Congress will be too busy debating something stupid to annex the Neutral Rim.  Either way, that’s way off in the future.  Right now, we’re going to need the Alliance’s help to liberate Cera in the first place.  Pretty ideas like yours don’t win wars, Captain. Guns, like the ones the Alliance have, will.  If the Alliance is going to fight against the PACT, we have to accept their help if we expect to win.  There’s just no other way.”

“You’re right about that for now…” Kayto tried not to sound too grim.

“Anyways, go have some fun, that’s enough shop talk for now,” Icari got up and gave his back a playful slap.  “If you keep pulling the long face, even the booze will start to taste bad.”

******

As the night carried on, Kayto excused himself from the festivities, finding Ava sitting by herself at the same table they had shared at the previous party.  His First Officer sat with an untouched drink in front of her, propping her head up with one arm and idly twirling her long hair between her fingers, staring at the depths of the drink, looking moody.

“Captain,” Ava straightened up as he walked up to the table.

“May I?”

“Fine,” Ava gave an irritable jerk, but motioned towards the empty seat.

The two sat in silence for a few minutes as they watched the party carry on without them.  Icari put down what had to be her tenth shot that night, nothing apart from the merest hint of pink at her cheekbones to suggest that the liquor was doing anything to her.  With an arm clapped around Chigara, she whispered something into her ear, shooting Kayto a look across the room, her emerald eyes twinkling with laughter as she met and held his gaze.  Chigara turned bright pink, waving her hands so fast they seemed to blur.  Across the room, Claude giggled tipsily as she flirted with no less than six of the Sunrider’s more desperate male crew, each hanging onto her every word and laughing at her least amusing comments.

“Well, things seem to be going nicely…” remarked Kayto.  “At least this time there’s no arm wrestling.”

Ava folded her arms across her chest.  “Are we seriously going to have one of these every time we pull off a mission, Captain?  I’m all for morale, but we’re still military.  There have to be limits.”

“I know, I know,” sighed Kayto.  “It’s just…”

Ava arched an eyebrow, waiting for him to continue.

“They never got to enjoy the open bar at Arcadius’ wedding.  I had to make it up to them somehow.”

Ava stared at him for a moment before letting the serious mask she wore fall.  Laughing and suddenly looking far younger and more carefree than she had in weeks, Ava’s eyes twinkled unexpectedly as she stirred her drink and looked at the celebration in new light, tolerating, if not fully endorsing, the festivities.  “Maybe you’re right…  After all, they rescued a Ryuvian Princess, sank two battleships, and crashed the Veniczar’s wedding.  Not bad for one renegade warship.”

“That’s the spirit,” Kayto clinked his glass with hers, both of them taking a sip of their drinks.  “Speaking of the princess, have you seen Asaga?”

“No, I haven’t,” Ava said.  “But after what happened to her today… I don’t blame her for wanting some peace and quiet.”

Kayto nodded seriously.  “Of course.  I’ll try to find her, make sure she’s OK.  Don’t let the party get out of control; I want the crew sober by the time we pull into Far Port.”

“Aye, aye, Captain,” agreed Ava as Kayto rose and left the mess hall.

******

Once again, one of the corridors leading away from the mess hall had been darkened so that the external holos dominated the view.  Standing alone, Sola ignored any crew that passed by on their way to and from the party, staring morosely out at the stars.

“I should have known it was you, nobody else ever turns these lights off,” remarked Kayto, sidling up to her.  “We have an observation deck, you know.  You could look out real windows, not these simulated holos.”

“Captain,” Sola said by way of greeting, ignoring the offer.

Kayto gave himself a faint smile, almost certain that Sola’s preference to remain near the mess hall stemmed from a deep-seated desire for company despite her lone wolf attitude.  “I just wanted to thank you for your help during the rescue.  Those were some amazing shots you landed; I don’t think anyone in our time’s ever seen someone able to fire that far or accurately.”

“Thank you, Captain, but it was all for naught.”  Sola turned to look at him, sadness etched onto her face.  “The worse has come to pass, Ryuvia has fallen.  I was powerless to prevent her fate.”

“Not yet,” Kayto said firmly.  “The Queen still lives, Ryuvia’s people are still alive.  We’ll liberate Ryuvia and free your people from the PACT.”

“To what end?”  Sola’s tone was bitter.  “My sacrifice was meaningless.  In my time, the Holy Ryuvian Empire spanned the known universe.  All of humanity basked in our glory and radiance.  And at the center of it, Ryuvia.  Our world was the crown jewel of our empire; where all roads led, where the acme of science, industry, and culture had been achieved and surpassed.  But when I laid eyes on Ryuvia today… she was nothing more than a backwater planet, no more developed than our most distant border planets, forgotten by the galaxy and conquered so easily by barbarians…  Ryuvia is dead, Captain.”

“Your sacrifice was not in vain,” insisted Kayto, a little shocked by Sola’s harsh point of view.  “For millennia after your sacrifice, the Ryuvian Empire’s flame burned bright.  It’s likely they surpassed even what you remember of their glory.  It was only in the last four hundred years that Ryuvia weakened.  Our scholars believe infighting within the Royal Court lead to some kind of cataclysmic event or war.  But even so, your sacrifice bought your people one thousand years of peace and prosperity.  How could that have not meant anything?”

Sola turned quiet as she contemplated the sky once again, thinking on Kayto’s words.  “My sacrifice merely delayed the moment where we sabotaged our own Empire and caused our own demise, Captain.  Nothing more… leave me.  I wish solitude.”

“Sola…” Kayto felt tempted to put a hand on her shoulder, but the woman’s cold gaze suggested it would be a mistake.  “You don’t have to be alone, Sola.  Everyone on this crew knows what it feels like to lose a home… we want to be there for you.”

Without even looking at him, Sola continued to stare firmly out at the night sky.  With an inward sigh, Kayto did his best to give her a small smile and walked away, respecting her wishes.

******

Making his way to the crew quarters, Kayto found Asaga’s assigned room with the pilot quarters.  Knocking on her door, he called out.  “Asaga?  It’s Kayto.  Do you have a moment?”

The door’s lock clicked and it opened.  “Uh, how’s it going, Capt’n?” asked Asaga, inviting him in.

“Fine… I just wanted to talk to you about what happened at Ryuvia,” explained Kayto.

“You must have so many questions,” sighed Asaga, taking a seat wearily on her bed.  “First, I’m really sorry I didn’t tell you about my identity right away… I never meant to put the crew in any danger, I just… honestly, I thought I could keep running and the day would never come.  I guess real life doesn’t work like that, huh?”

“That doesn’t matter now, Asaga,” Kayto shook his head.  “We’re just glad you’re back now.  How are you feeling?  Do you want to talk about what happened at the wedding?”

Asaga’s face turned sad as she flashed back to the events in the Star Palace.  “My father… I can’t believe he’s gone… Even though I hated him for what he agreed to, it turns out he was only trying to protect me the best he could.  I… I hope I made things right again before he left…”

Her resolve stiffening, Asaga’s eyes regained at least part of their usual spark.  “But I’m not the type to get all depressed, don’t worry, Capt’n.  I’ll fight the PACT to avenge for my father.  So long as I’ve got mah Black Jack, I’ll keep fighting in his memory.”

“I’m glad you’re being strong about this, but remember, everyone’s here for you.  You don’t have to carry anything alone,” said Kayto, his concern only slightly relieved.

“I’m fine, Capt’n, really,” insisted Asaga.

“Tell me more about Arcadius.  Did you learn anything about him?” asked Kayto.

Asaga shook her head.  “I’m sorry, Capt’n, there really isn’t anything new to say.  Other than spouting some stuff about lost technology and destiny, he didn’t really say anything.  I think he’s always dreamed of conquering Ryuvia; he’s obsessed with our lost technology and has been amassing a collection of ancient Ryuvian artifacts on New Eden.  The last thing I heard him say was that he wanted to take Ryuvia apart looking for more…  I can’t even begin to say what he wants all of it for.”

Kayto frowned unhappily.  “Not for ending galactic hunger, that’s for sure.  If Arcadius does manage to find the right kind of lost technology, it would be devastating for everyone else in the galaxy.  We’ll need to stop him before he becomes unstoppable.”

Asaga nodded, but stayed silent, having nothing more to add to the conversation.

“So…” Kayto gave a small, more lighthearted smile.  “You’re Queen of Ryuvia now… We’re honored to have you aboard, your Majesty.  What are your plans now?”

“Stop it!” Asaga laughed and threw her pillow at his face.  “Ugh… I don’t even want to think about being called that… I’m through with being royalty, Capt’n… I was never really fit for it or wanted it anyways.”

“Well, you’ve got a right to choose your life,” remarked Kayto.

“Ryuvia’s been ruled by a monarch for too long,” Asaga sighed.  “Look where it’s gotten us.  It’s time for Ryuvia to move on, away from an archaic system that’s done nothing but continue our decay.  As soon as all this is over, I’m abdicating.  Nobody needs Kings and Queens anymore, Capt’n.  My people need to take responsibility for their own lives and make Ryuvia strong for themselves.”

Kayto nodded, giving Asaga an encouraging smile.  “That’s a pretty courageous decision; Ryuvia’s lucky to have a Queen like you… You’re right, that’s probably the best thing you can do for your people now, but they’ll still need guidance; it won’t be an overnight process.”

“Yeah, I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it,” Asaga waved him off and flopped onto her bed, sprawling out happily.

“You look beat,” Kayto rose.  “Thanks for the time, take care OK?  I’m glad you’re back.”

“So am I.  Thanks for coming to check on me, Capt’n,” Asaga said, waving at him as he turned and left.

******

Far Port hung large on Kayto’s room holowindows, it’s soft, sea-green marble texture reflecting sunlight brilliantly as Sunrider made her final approach to orbit.  An oceanic class 5 world, Far Port was not the most hospitable of planets.  Almost entirely covered by water, there was little solid land to speak of; most of it only temporarily poking out from under the ocean as tides ebbed and flowed.  On the surface, deadly ozone concentrations and suffocating humidity necessitated the use of breathing gear at all times when outside of hermetically sealed colonies that dotted the world below.  Most of the planetary structures dated back to the Ancient Ryuvian era, now decayed and falling into the ocean, uninhabited and poorly maintained.  Apart from some odd research interests and a series of uninteresting bioproducts harvested from the oceans, Far Port had little to offer the rest of the galaxy.

What made Far Port a world worthy of mention, however, was not economic in nature, but navigational.  Warp travel was incredibly sensitive to gravitational influences; even in the higher level of space-time that starships traveled in to achieve FTL travel in normal three dimensional space was subject to local gravitational distortions.  Typically, these distortions resulted in the unpredictable but manageable drift effect, however, if they became strong enough, could threaten to distort a warp bubble sufficiently to force a ship out of warp.

The space for light years around Far Port was fraught with black holes and other super-dense astronomic phenomenon, ranging from dead pulsars to neutron stars.  Miraculously, Far Port’s star had avoided the super-violent deaths of its neighbors early in galactic history, maintaining a narrow corridor through which ships were forced to pass if they wished to gain access to either side of the natural stellar barriers to warp travel, the only other alternative being a several year detour to clear space.

For this reason, Far Port had commanded an important presence during the days of the Holy Ryuvian Empire, where it regulated and taxed trade flowing from Ryuvia Prime and the outer rim planets to the core of the galaxy and the Far Rim, where the Solar Alliance was now situated.  During times of war, Far Port also served as a logical “gate” world for the Holy Ryuvian Empire, protecting their planets from the barbarians of the Far Rim.  Safe behind Far Port, Ryuvia Prime held steadfast against any external threats to her empire, until the New Empire’s rise on New Eden.

During the Ryuvian wars, the New Empire, having already spread across most of the known galaxy, conquered Far Port from the decaying Ryuvian Empire, stripping it of its final and most cherished external territory, a reminder of their former glories.  Far Port yet again changed hands when the newly emerged Solar Alliance pushed the Imperial fleets back from the fortress world in a coordinated assault with what remained of Ryuvia’s once proud fleets.  Hundreds of ships were lost on each side, but the Solar Alliance emerged triumphant.  Once in control over Far Port, however, the Alliance refused to withdraw their ships from Far Port, its strategic value in holding back the New Empire and any other external threats to the core worlds of the Alliance outweighing their relationships with the Ryuvian Empire.  The Ryuvians, having committed their remaining strength to the battle, were powerless when the Solar Alliance declared Far Port to be Alliance territory in a shocking betrayal of the understood terms of the short lived pact between the Ryuvian Empire and the Solar Alliance.  To this day, Ryuvian-Alliance diplomatic relations remained cold and strained over the issue of Far Port and its Alliance garrison.

Kayto sat at his desk, reviewing the Alliance public datafeeds from Far Port as Sunrider approached the watery planet.  The news holos were abuzz with news of Ryuvia Prime’s fall to the PACT.  Political pundits from both sides of the Solar Congress were locked in endless debate on every channel, spouting political rhetoric and demanding action.   The fall of the Ryuvian Empire was a monumental, if predictable occasion, marking the end of ten thousand years of history and leaving the PACT and Solar Alliance as the last two powers remaining in the galaxy.

More than that, Ryuvia’s fall underscored the PACT intentions in a way no Neutral Rim world’s conquest could, making it difficult for even the staunchest Progress Party senators to argue that appeasement and avoidance of conflict was a sustainable course of action.  Now, with the PACT literally at the gates, the Solar Congress had declared an emergency session to debate the proper course of action.

“Our only choice is to declare war!” declared some Alliance senator on Kayto’s holo as he watched the newsfeed.  The man was portly, dressed in an expensive suit, and utterly indistinguishable from his hundreds of colleagues.  For a so-called democracy, the Solar Congress seemed to be nothing more than the typical “boy’s club,” of fat men with too much money and time, only distinguishable by the color of tie they chose to wear and the kind of mindless rhetoric they chose to repeat.  “Our honorable allies, the Ryuvian Empire, lay vanquished, dozens of Neutral Rim planets cry out for our help.  Shall we turn away from our duty and honor?  Shall we let the PACT storm our gates and take our planets one at a time?  The United Universalists say no; no to the PACT imperialism and no to the threat to our security they pose.  It is time, citizens of the Solar Alliance, to once again take up the mantle of freedom and justice in the galaxy, to defeat the PACT as we did the New Empire, and to bring hope to the downtrodden.  Thank you.”  The Senator bowed as deeply as his gut would allow, stepping off stage to thunderous applause from exactly half of the congress while a nearly identical Progress Party senator stepped up for an equally meaningless rebuttal.

“Why don’t you just tear off your shirts and run on sex appeal?” muttered Kayto, turning off the holo in disgust.  He had never had much stomach for galactic politics, unlike Ava who could watch and analyze speech after speech with rapt attention.  To him, the entire show was a farce; there was almost no way the Solar Alliance could avoid war at this point, however, both parties were now maneuvering around each other, using the issue to angle and play Alliance citizenry into their hands for the coming presidential elections; the only thing more important to Alliance politics than the PACT invasion.

Although the Alliance’s pending involvement in the war was almost certain, the Neutral Rim’s fate and Cera’s remained anything but.  Kayto felt a prickle of discomfort as he contemplated the precarious situation Sunrider and her crew found themselves in; trapped between two galactic superpowers in the biggest galactic conflict in over a century.  Although some would undoubtedly take the Alliance’s intervention as a sign of hope, Kayto was not so sure.  The Alliance, as always, would have its own agenda and, if he had learned anything from talking politics with Ava, that meant finding some profit in dispensing “aid,” to the Neutral Rim.

What was best for the Solar Alliance was not necessarily what would be best for Sunrider’s crew or Cera, a fact he intended to keep in the back of his mind as Sunrider continued her delicate relationship with the Alliance.  For now, as their enemy’s enemy, the Alliance was Sunrider’s natural ally, but, if Far Port was any indication, the greed and convenience that characterized the Alliance for so many of the Neutral Rim’s citizenry could rear its ugly head at any time.  On that day, Kayto mused grimly, Sunrider would need to be ready for anything.

Kayto’s thoughts were interrupted as his door chimed, admitting Ava.

“Captain, incoming transmission from Admiral Grey,” she said as the door closed behind her.

“I see…” Kayto couldn’t decide whether to be smug or offended.  “I’m surprised he’d want anything to do with us after Versta.”

“Officially, nothing out of the ordinary happened there, I’m sure,” shrugged Ava, disillusioned.  “That’s just how these games work, Kayto.  Now that the Alliance is going to declare war against the PACT, they’re probably interested in any assets they can get their hands on, Sunrider included.”

“Only one way to find out,” said Kayto, keying the controls to his office’s FTL communication suite.  “Let’s hear it from the horse’s mouth.”

Admiral Grey’s avatar condensed in front of them, joining Kayto and Ava at his desk.  “Captain, a pleasure to see you again,” he said by way of greeting.

“Admiral.”  Kayto’s tone was just a degree cooler than merely professional.

“Word of your daring rescue of the Princess has been the talk of the entire Solar Alliance.  I must say, I’m impressed that you survived the attempt; it seems you’re making quite the career out of impossible feats.”

“You’re too kind, Admiral,” Kayto said, unsure if he liked the Admiral’s tone.  “I had one hell of a team; they’re the ones that made it all possible to begin with.”

“Of course,” Admiral Grey’s mustache twitched with amusement before his features hardened with seriousness.  “Alas, your feat against the PACT, as impressive as it was, is but a silver lining in an otherwise unfortunate and difficult development.  The Princess’s rescue changes nothing with regards to the PACT invasion of the Neutral Rim and our current strategic situation.  With the fall of Ryuvia, the PACT is now poised to strike at Far Port, the entry way into Alliance space.  Should they take Far Port, our simulations show that they will overrun at least five core systems before we can even muster our forces.”

“How can that be possible?” demanded Kayto.  “The Alliance has hundreds of ships; don’t tell me you didn’t see this coming!”

“You have President Alythe’s policies and executive orders to thank for that,” growled Grey.  “War has not been fought in Alliance space for a hundred years.  The years of peace have allowed us to grow soft; neglect and bureaucracy have taken their toll on our once proud fleets.  The situation is such that many of our ships have not even been manned for decades and our supply lines lay scattered across Alliance space with little unifying central command.  If the PACT were to gain access to Alliance space, sheer, bloody panic might break loose; we could lose the war before it has even truly started.  Captain, we must hold Far Port if the Alliance is to have any chance of bringing its strength to bear in this war effort.  A PACT incursion of Alliance space is not an option.”

Kayto felt a heavy feeling settle in his gut as he realized what Admiral Grey was asking of the Sunrider and the weight of the request.  “I see…  Sunrider is making for Far Port as we speak for repairs and resupply.  I’m guessing you want us to join the defense.”

Grey nodded solemnly.  “I’ve already scrambled four of our closest battle-ready fleets to make for Far Port with all haste to join the defense, but I will not mince words about the situation; things do not look good.  Of the dispatched fleets, only the Second Fleet will likely arrive before the PACT offensive starts.”

Kayto and Ava’s faces must have betrayed the lack of confidence in the revelation of the Solar Alliance’s weak military stance, because Grey continued in a more defensive tone.  “Have faith, Captain.  The Solar Alliance boasts an economic base far larger than that of the PACT; we can out produce the Compact worlds easily.  Additionally, Alliance Ryder pilots are known throughout the galaxy for their skill; we’re not out of the fight yet.  If we can buy some time now, the Solar Alliance will meet the PACT threat head on and win.”

“Your mission, therefore, is obvious,” continued Grey.  “I need your ship and crew to rendezvous with the Second Fleet at Far Port.  You must hold out against the PACT offensive until the arrival of our other fleets.  Intelligence indicates that five PACT fleets are poised to strike at Far Port; they are being commanded by Veniczar Cullen.  I believe you are… acquainted.  All together, we believe this force represents a substantial chunk of the PACT invasion effort in the Neutral Rim.  You will be facing no fewer than three dozen battleships, fifteen carriers, two hundred cruisers, and roughly four hundred support craft.  Additionally, we believe that Veniczar Arcadius will observe the battle personally from the Legion.”

“And the Second Fleet?” asked Kayto, stunned by the enormity of the PACT’s strength.

“The Second Fleet is primarily comprised of cruisers,” said the Admiral with a soft sigh.  “Eighty cruisers with two to four standard Alliance Ryders per ship.”

“The enemy outnumbers us five-to-one,” Kayto’s head pounded as he absorbed the numbers.  “Those aren’t good odds, Admiral.”

“Precisely why I am appointing you to the capacity as my Combat Advisor,” Admiral Grey laced his fingers together.  “I cannot think of anyone more suited to those odds; as I said before, you seem to make a career out of the impossible.  Furthermore, you are the only one who has faced the PACT outside of simulators; few in our fleets have even seen a PACT vessel up close.  You know how they operate, you know what it’s like to face them.  I have faith, Captain, that if anyone can hold out against the PACT outnumbered five-to-one, it is you.  You will have tactical command of the Second Fleet.  Rear Admiral Petrova will assist you in relaying orders through her flagship, Maiden’s Grace.  I assure you that you will have no problems assuming command of the fleet and that you two will work well.  She and the rest of the Second Fleet understand the situation well and are prepared to take whatever steps necessary to hold Far Port against the PACT until reinforcements arrive.  I know I am asking too much, but there is no other choice.”

“Understood, Admiral.”  Kayto straightened in his chair and saluted.  The Admiral was right; the defense of Far Port would be one of the defining moments in the coming war.  If the Alliance was to stand a chance at liberating worlds like Cera on the Neutral Rim, the PACT would need to be stopped at the gates of Alliance space.

“One last thing,” Admiral Grey said before cutting the connection.  “To assist Sunrider in preparing for and fighting during the battle, I am assigning one of my personal advisors to your starship to serve as a liaison.  I understand the Sunrider’s Ryder hanger still has open berths; as such, I am certain she will be a valuable asset to your crew.”

“Sunrider is a starship of the Cera Space Force, Admiral, not the Solar Alliance.”  Kayto’s voice could have frozen helium.  “As her commanding officer, I make all final decisions regarding crew, not your office.”

Admiral Grey’s mouth tightened to a razor thin line, but before he could retort, Kayto continued.  “Having said that, Admiral, you are correct, I do find myself in need of skilled pilots and Ryders.  I would be glad to have your advisor join my crew.  Of course, that means she will be subject to Cera Space Force regulations and held to our chain of command.  Do we have an understanding?”

“As you wish,” the Admiral made an irritable hand gesture, but acquiesced all the same.  “I will communicate this… development to her.  She is a talented pilot and a loyal officer, Captain.  I am certain she will fit in with your crew.  She will rendezvous with Sunrider tomorrow when the Second Fleet arrives; I expect due care to be given to her.”

Without another word, the Admiral cut the connection, disappearing from Kayto’s office.

******

Asaga sighed deeply, letting the hot water of the shower run over her tense body.  As she watched the water trickle into the drain by her feet, she felt it carrying away the stress and emotional turmoil that she’d endured that day.  The sorrow and resignation she had felt handing herself over to the PACT, the horror of watching her father murdered in cold blood, the unshakable feeling that she had failed her people, who now undoubtedly slaved away under the heel of PACT occupation while she fled their problems yet again; all of it swirled around her, making her head spin as she furiously scrubbed as if to strip her troubles away by force.

“Get a hold of yourself, Asaga,” she muttered, plunging her head into the hot jet of water, running her hands through her red hair with the current.

Taking another deep breath, she let the hot steam sooth her frayed nerves.  It was indescribably good to be back aboard the Sunrider.  Even though she’d only been gone for a short while, Sunrider never felt like home as it did now.  Ever since coming back on board, she had been almost fearful to close her eyes, lest the entire rescue reveal itself as a dream.  Except… it was real.  The soaring feeling of hope and salvation she’d felt when Sunrider’s escape pod blasted loose from the Star Palace, returning her to the ship’s familiar silhouette was real.  Kayto’s rescue… that was real too.

Asaga flashed back for a moment, reliving the moment Kayto swept her feet out from under her and carried her bodily back to the Sunrider’s pod.  She could almost hear Cullen’s blubbering and the whine of lasers and bullets, smell the rubble and dust, and feel the Captain’s heart pounding through his chest as he pressed her close.

Thud, thud…

The memory of Kayto’s heartbeat melted into her own as Asaga felt her pulse quicken at the thought.  Suddenly, the entire shower became far too warm for comfort; she felt almost suffocated by the steam and hot water around her as it traced its way down her bare skin unbearably.  Gasping and clapping a hand to her mouth lest someone hear her outburst, Asaga braced herself against the ceramic tiles of the shower’s wall with her arm and pressed her legs together.  It didn’t help.

“Urk…” Asaga stifled herself again as a feeling she’d never associated with Kayto worked its way deeper into her flesh.  “W-what am I thinking…”

Asaga felt a deep pang of shame and guilt.  Her father laid slain, her people enslaved… yet, here she was, hiding in the shower and fantasizing about her commanding officer like some adolescent schoolgirl.  It was small minded, base, inappropriate… but impossible to ignore.

“You’re Queen now,” admonished a sharp voice in the back of her head.  “You’ve got to think about your people first.”

“Maybe my people would like Kayto as Royal Consort.  I think they would,” another, altogether more cheerful and carefree voice said.

“This sucks…” Asaga groaned to herself, silencing both voices.  But the feeling lingered, undeniable.

Asaga closed her eyes, savoring the feeling of each drop of water that teasingly hung on the edge of her hardened nipples before dripping off with a delectable sensation.  Hot water coursed between her legs as it traced its way down her belly, flushing her skin and melting right through her.  “Just a little… can’t hurt…” she whispered, spreading her thighs, almost trembling with anticipation.

BANG BANG

“HURK!”  Asaga reeled back in surprise, slipping and slamming down painfully on the floor of the shower.

“Hurry up in there!”  Icari’s abrasive voice shouted through the locked door.  “What’s taking forever?!”

In an instant, the moment she’d cultivated shriveled in on itself and fell to pieces.  Wet and in pain, Asaga hauled herself back to her feet with a wince.  “H-hang on!” she said loudly, trying her best to sound normal.  “I’m almost done!”

“Oh Icari…” a much more mellow and dreamy voice wafted through the door.  “Why don’t we just shower together if you’re in such a hurry?”

“E-eh?!”  Icari spluttered with indignation.  “S-shut up! L-like I would ever want to s-see… see… your… EAGH!”

“Oh come on…” Claude purred seductively.  “It’s not like you have anything I don’t.  Don’t pretend you’ve never thought of it, I can tell you’re a bit That way…”

“S-SHUT UP!”

“I’m done, I’m done!” Asaga called out loudly, before Claude could proposition Icari any further.

Wrenching a towel off the rack and drying off as fast as she could, Asaga threw a bathrobe over herself and charged out of the bathroom, taking advantage of the billowing steam to duck past Icari and Claude without making eye contact and hurry back to her room.

Sighing in relief as her quarter’s doors hissed shut behind her, she dropped her sundries in a wet, disorganized pile in the corner of the room before grudgingly getting dressed.  Part of her wanted to crash into bed and let everything and everyone drift away in the peace of the night, but after her shower, she felt anything but relaxed.  Keyed up in more ways than one, she knew sleep would be a hopeless endeavor at the moment.

“I guess I’d better get a hot glass of milk…” she muttered, buttoning her uniform and stepping out of her quarters.

Sunrider’s corridors were quiet and dimmed for night hours, majority of the crew having retired to allow the night shift to take over their stations.  As she walked towards the mess hall, the sounds of her footsteps rang out against the metal deck, echoing softly ahead of her.  Passing into a completely darkened and deserted corridor, Asaga’s walk slowed as she came across a series of activated holoscreens projecting the night sky, for all intents and purposes resembling a glass tunnel in space.  The soft light from the stars was soft and soothing as reflected light from Far Port’s vast, emerald ocean caressed her silkily.  Completely drawn in by the view, Asaga forgot all about her milk, finding the peace and solace she’d been looking for in the first place.  Staring out at the view, she lost all sense of time and place, drifting underneath a sea of stars and feeling her burdens floating off gently into the distance, carried by the receding tide of the universe.

A quiet shuffle, barely louder than fabric gliding over fabric, shocked her out of her reverie.  “U-uck!”  Asaga jumped in surprise as Sola’s white hair and pale skin seemed to materialize from the shadows of the corridor.  Her amber eyes betrayed nothing, save for mild curiosity, as she took a step closer before falling to one knee.

“You are… the Queen.”

“EAH!” Asaga scrambled to haul Sola to her feet, her face blushing almost as red as her hair.  “W-what was that for!?”

Sola did not fight her as she pulled her up by the arm, but looked at her with empty eyes.  “You are the Queen,” she repeated, voice equally devoid of emotion.

“How long have you been there?” demanded Asaga, still feeling off balance at Sola’s sudden appearance.  Intuition told her that the other woman had been there long before she’d even come, her stillness and preference for the dark allowing her to blend in, almost supernaturally, with the shadows.

“The stars give me peace, my Queen,” answered Sola by way of reply.

“Ya know,” Asaga wrinkled her nose in distaste, “I’d really rather you just call me Asaga.”

Sola said nothing, merely staring at Asaga in silence.  The seconds ticked past, each one slower than the last as Asaga felt mounting awkwardness and unease.  Finally, just as Asaga was about to open her mouth to say something, anything to break the deafening silence, Sola spoke quietly.  “I am Sola.”

“Good, good,” Asaga felt a rush of relief.  “Let’s keep things on a first name basis, OK?  So what are you doing, Sola?”

“Reflecting.”  Sola turned to look out at Far Port once more, her face seeming microscopically more expressive than before.  “Back in my time, Far Port was a mighty trade world and fortress of the Ryuvian Empire.  Tens of thousands of ships passed through this space each year, bringing merchants from across the galaxy, from every corner of our Empire, to engage in commerce and the exchange of ideas.  Truly, it was the gate at which the Empire’s might and splendor met the exoticism and unknown of the galactic core and the Far Rim.”  Giving the smallest of sighs, Sola continued, almost as an afterthought.  “It was also my birthworld.”

“Yet now, Far Port lays fallow.”  Sola looked at the planet between them sadly.  “It is merely an abandoned world, civilization overtaken by wilderness.  The cities I once called home now crumble into the ocean; the habitats I used to dream of visiting in orbit are little more than depressurized husks…”

Asaga planted her hands on her hips, eyeing Far Port with bright eyes as she imagined the vibrant scene Sola must have remembered of the planet’s past.  “Don’t worry about a thing,” Asaga said confidently, touched by Sola’s melancholy.  “One day, this place will be a bustling port again, just like the one you remember.  After we send the PACT scurrying back to New Eden, Ryuvia will grow again and we’ll make Far Port the way it was.”

“Our Empire has become weak,” Sola’s voice was quiet and flat.  “Our armadas lay shattered and defeated.  Barbarians and enemies have stolen our technology and secrets.  The splendors of our culture have been forgotten and abandoned by those who once worshiped us-”

“And that’s why we’ve got to change!” declared Asaga, interrupting Sola’s unhappy assessment of Ryuvia’s many failings.  “No one was to blame for our downfall other than ourselves.  In our own arrogance, we sealed the fate of our Empire.  The Ryuvian Lords became corrupt and blinded by their own greed; son killed father and brothers slew each other, all for a piece of the Ryuvian dream.”

Looking out at Far Port, ambition and vision bringing a spark to her eyes, Asaga said firmly, “We’re going to make a new Ryuvia, where our people have a chance to work for themselves, to pick leaders who will fight to make their lives better and who embody the collective wisdom of Ryuvia.”

Sola said nothing for a long time.  “The Talbur was right to illuminate only for you,” she said finally.  “The throne of the Infinite Emperor was a seat of great potential.  Those who sat in the throne wielded the power to bring great good to the galaxy or equally great suffering.  I am… relieved that Ryuvia will pass into your hands in this time of need.”

“Eh… thanks!” Asaga turned pink and shrugged sheepishly.  “I think I’ll need help though… I’m not that great of a leader, myself.”

Sola nodded solemnly.  “You wish a strong partner, no?  The Captain would make a fine consort.”

“G-guck!” Asaga looked as though struck by something heavy.

“The Captain is a strong man; principled and compassionate, firm and inspiring.  He would have made quite the warlord in my time; surely he will give you many strong children, worthy of continuing the Ryuvian line,” continued Sola blithely, her deadpan tone extolling Kayto’s virtues with all the enthusiasm of someone describing a particularly fresh piece of fish.

“C-children!?” Asaga’s jaw turned slack and her knees wobbled.

“It is your duty to produce heirs to the throne, is it not?” Sola looked momentarily confused.  “Surely your father and mother taught you of-”

“UWAH-HAHAHAHA,” Asaga cut Sola off with a loud, nervous, forced laugh before the conversation went somewhere completely out of control.  “What gave you that idea anyways?” she blabbered, “The Capt’n’s got his own mission; the liberation of his homeworld Cera and the surrender of the PACT.”

“Your face.”  Sola cocked her head to the side, looking at Asaga with her large blank eyes.

“Eh?”

“It is red.”

“Ehhhh…. I gotta go calibrate the Black Jack!” Asaga gabbled rapidly.  “Y-you’d better get the Seraphim ready too, Sola!  I’ll talk to you later!”

Heart pounding, Asaga tore out of the corridor, walking away as fast as she could without breaking into an outright run, face glowing even in the darkness of the corridor.

Giving the merest of shrugs, Sola turned back to her lonely vigil.  …She’s no queen… yet.

 

CHAPTER 17 >>>>