Chapter 13- Sola

Sunrider’s hanger was a complete mess, all five Ryders were scattered on the main deck from their emergency combat landing.  The mere fact that they remained standing or kneeling was a testament to their pilots’ skills in Ryder maneuvering; ordinarily, such a landing would have floored a less experienced pilot’s Ryder.

As Kayto and Ava emerged from the lift to the main hanger floor, an intense smell of ozone, burning metal, and oil hit their noses.  Ship security had arrived, but per Kayto’s orders, remained somewhat distant to the Ryder pilots, only acting as oversight.  Farther ahead, the Sunrider’s pilots had exited their craft, facing the Ancient Ryuvian’s Ryder as its pilot descended to the deck as well.

Fingering her white Ryder suit as though reassuring herself its armored plates were real, the Ryuvian’s expressionless gaze raked over her surroundings, betraying no reaction to her capture.  Silent, she merely stared back at the other pilots with mild disinterest, barely bothering to give Kayto and Ava a second glance as they approached.

“Hi, hello?” Kayto repeated himself to capture the Ryuvian’s full attention.  “I’m Captain Kayto Shields, welcome aboard the Sunrider.”

“Captain…” the white haired girl spoke the word slowly, testing it on her tongue.  Again, she spoke with a flat, deadpan voice devoid of emotion.  “You are the ship master?”

“Uhh… That’s actually more Ava’s job,” joked Kayto as Ava glared at him.  “But yes, I am in charge on this ship.  I don’t think you mentioned your name.”

“…” The Ryuvian girl neither reacted nor seemed to appreciate his attempt at humor.  “Princess Sola vi Ryuvia.”

“P-princess!?” Kayto inquired excitedly.  “Are you the missing princess from Ryuvia?”

Sola looked back at him without saying anything, uncomprehending.

Chigara gasped, her ancient history lessons coming back to her.  “B-but that’s impossible! The Sola vi Ryuvia?  Of the Ancient Ryuvians?  But you died over two thousand years ago!”

Sola continued to hold her silence, although confusion clouded her eyes and she bit her lip, apparently not refuting Chigara’s recalled history.

“Looks like history may have gotten that last detail wrong, Chigara,” frowned Kayto.  “Sola… I don’t mean to be blunt, but we found you in suspended animation aboard that ship of yours.  You’ve been asleep for more than two thousand years.”  Kayto said, watching Sola closely.

Although the words clearly hit home, her expression was inscrutable.  For a moment, he considered how he would feel if their positions were reversed and a wave of pity washed over him. For the Ancient Ryuvian, the future would be a vastly different place from what she remembered, everything and everyone from her own time lost to the erosion of history.  “I’m sorry, you must be even more shocked than we are.  I suppose we should welcome you to the future,” he said as gently as he could.

“What of the Fallen?  Was… my mission successful?” asked Sola, a profound sadness creeping into her features as though she already knew the answer.

“I’m not certain,” answered Kayto truthfully.  “You’ll have to take our word for it now, but things are very different now than from your own time.  The Holy Ryuvian Empire hasn’t existed for over a thousand years now.  We’ve lost much of the knowledge and history from your time, although Ryuvia Prime is still home to the Ryuvian royal family and what remains of their empire.”

“I see…” Sola’s expression remained sad, but she offered no other words, simply waiting for Kayto to continue.

“We’ll get you caught up on all the history you’ve missed,” offered Kayto.  “But I need to ask a few questions first, just so that we can figure out what happened back there.  I need to know why you attacked us.”

“The last thing I remember before the Final Tear was the heat of battle.” Sola spoke cryptically, not bothering to explain the unfamiliar references to her audience.  “The Fallen had breached our lines, overwhelmed our defenses… it was over for us, so it had to be done.  A flash… followed by utter destruction and darkness.  You say I was kept dormant for all those years, but when I awoke, naught but a second had passed from my last memory.  I attacked your ship fearing it was the Fallen.  Please, forgive me.”

“Umm… that’s fine.” said Kayto with confusion.  Little of what she said made sense without the proper cultural context, but as far as he could tell, it seemed that the entire attack was a misunderstanding; understandable in the light of her disorientation.  At any rate, she no longer appeared to mean them harm.  “You’ve mentioned the Fallen twice now… who are they?”

“Imposters to the throne,” said Sola mechanically, her dead and empty eyes locking onto his.  “They were led by the pretender, Crow Harbour, sworn enemy of the rightful heirs of Ryuvia.”

Kayto nodded; her story seemed to fit with most modern explanations regarding the waning centuries of the Holy Ryuvian Empire, even if history had forgotten the names and faces of the various factions believed to have destroyed the ancient empire through protracted infighting and civil war.  “And what about that explosion?  We’ve never seen anything of that magnitude.”

“Such is the ultimate power of the Sharr’Lac,” answered Sola, apparently referring to the ancient super-dreadnought.  “The Final Tear… a weapon of unimaginable destructive potential.  It was within the power of the Sharr’Lac to raze and burn everything within a half a light year radius, so long as one was willing to pay the Ultimate Sacrifice.”

Kayto sighed.  Although the line of questioning had been intriguing, it was clear that making complete sense of her memories and knowledge would require many more hours of back and forth and access to the ship’s database for modern historical texts.  At the moment, however, Sunrider’s needs were far more pressing and her mission would need to have priority over any historical curiosity.  “Last question; do you know anything about the Crown Jewel of Ryuvia?”

“Crown… Jewel?” Sola looked utterly uncomprehending.

“Umm… maybe it was called something else in your time…” Kayto wondered.  “We’re told it’s a crystal of some sort that can help identify Ryuvian royalty.”

“You speak of the Talbur,” Sola said decisively as everyone looked on eagerly.  “I have it in my possession, but no further need of it.  I give it to you freely as recompense for my actions.  Shall I retrieve it from the Seraphim?” Sola indicated her crumpled Ryder.

“Please!” Kayto nodded, marveling at their incredible luck.  “We wish to return it to the royal family on Ryuvia Prime.”

Sola nodded, turning and returning to her Ryder. Minutes later, she emerged with a elongated purple crystal shard in her hand.  “Behold the Talbur.  It lights in the presence of royal blood, but it shall never light for me.  I-” Sola gasped as the crystal flared a brilliant purple as she walked back to the group, floating five centimeters above her palm and rotating gently.  “That’s… impossible…”

“Why-?” Kayto furrowed his brow in confusion.

Warning!  Warning!  Kayto and Ava’s bracelets wailed simultaneously as the CIC sent an emergency alert to both of them.

“This is the Captain, go ahead!” said Kayto, lifting the bracelet to his lips.

“Captain!” the crewman on the other side of the line sounded panicked.  “We’ve got multiple warp signatures all around us.  Sir!  It’s the PACT!”

“Go to Red Alert!  I’m coming to the CIC right now!” roared Kayto, breaking into a sprint with Ava hot on his heels.  Alarms began wailing overhead as the ship lighting dropped into red again.  All Hands to battle stations!  This is not a drill!

In the lift, Kayto pounded the controls, taking a final look at the Ryder hanger as the doors closed.  Crew and machines ran to and fro as the Ryder pilots immediately made to return to their cockpits.  Having landed in those awkward circumstances, standard combat launch would not be an option; Sunrider would have to open her aft section once again to allow the Ryders to deploy.  Gritting his teeth, he looked sideways at Ava, her face taut and grim.  Calling the situation unfortunate was a dire understatement.  Unless Sunrider had run afoul a PACT supply barge, the situation promised to be a disaster.

Several agonizing minutes of waiting and sprinting later, Kayto and Ava burst into the CIC.  “Report!” demanded Kayto, settling into his seat and Ava to hers.

“Multiple PACT contacts dropping out of warp, Captain!” called out Ava, a flurry of motion.  “I’m reading forty… fifty… sixty ships in total!  Captain!  It’s an entire invasion fleet!”

Kayto’s blood ran cold as he looked up at the main screen, dozens of the PACT’s blood red ships, separated into battle groups, arrayed themselves in front of the Sunrider, moving to box her in completely.  As he watched, additional ships; cruisers, battleships, and carriers, dropped out of warp and lined up their weapons with the Sunrider.  Clearly, the attack was a premeditated ambush.  “Spool up our warp drives-”

“It’s no use, Captain,” interrupted Ava, ashen-faced.  “Our drives won’t be ready to spool up for another half hour after that last emergency jump… we’re dead in the water.”

“Damn!” Kayto pounded the arm rest of his chair.  Ava was entirely right; attempting another emergency warp so soon after the last one wasn’t a risk, it was suicide.

“We’re being hailed, Captain.  It’s the PACT fleet.”

“Let’s have it,” Kayto externally calming himself, but swallowing hard, throat dry and tight.

“BWAHAHAHA!” Veniczar Cullen’s substantial bulk appeared in the CIC, jowls quivering in delight.  “This is perfect, perfect!  Just the sort of retribution a worm like you deserves!  I told you you would rue the day you crossed me, Captain!”

“Veniczar Porkchop!” Kayto gave a mock start of surprise.  “Is it just me or is your flagship listing to port?  You might want to keep your weight along the central axis.”

“Bah!” Cullen waved a meaty hand at Kayto.  “Save your insults for the afterlife, boy.  As you can see, your foul ship and wretched crew are no match for my fleet.  Now… I know you have the Crown Jewel aboard your ship, don’t even bother denying it.  Why don’t you hand it over quick like a good lad, eh?”

“The Crown Jewel?” Kayto asked, thrown.  “What the hell does the PACT want with it?”

“Hmph,” Cullen sneered.  “Typical backwater ignorance.  The Crown Jewel is but a means to locate our Glorious Leader’s runaway bride, the Princess of Ryuvia.  I, Veniczar Cullen, have been tasked with its retrieval from this foul place.”

Kayto arched his brow at Ava, who shrugged back.  Clearly, news of the Princess’s betrothal to Veniczar Arcadius was not as widely publicized as her disappearance.  Not that Kayto could blame her; being married off to the megalomaniac dictator of the PACT Empire seemed like a decidedly unpleasant affair.  Little wonder then that she had absconded, leaving her computerized husband-to-be before they could even reach the altar.

Unfortunately, it seemed that the Crown Jewel was the only thing keeping the PACT ships from opening fire on the Sunrider.  Even if Kayto complied with their demand, he had little doubt that the Veniczar would sink the Sunrider and butcher his crew simply as an act of revenge for the humiliating defeat at Tautenia.

“I won’t ask again, boy,” threatened Cullen, his little piggy eyes bulging.

Kayto glared back at him.  If the Sunrider was going down, she would go down with her crew fighting to the last, not sniveling for mercy at the feet of a PACT Veniczar.  “You’d risk destroying the Crown Jewel?  Be my guest.  You can pry it from my cold, dead hands.  All weapons, fire!”

Sunrider’s Trinity lasers and Saviors discharged, rocking a PACT battleship in the lead, but failing to do anything more than emphasize her crew’s defiance against insurmountable odds.

“Pathetic.  I thought it would come to this,” Cullen indulged in a gleeful smile.  “I did rather hope for more begging though.  Perhaps this will loosen your tongue, boggart.  All ships, make it slow.”

A dozen PACT warships joined in with Cullen’s flagship, firing their lasers at Sunrider.  Surrounded by fire from all sides, Sunrider could do little except take hit after hit on her hull, the PACT lasers burning through armor and slicing through her decks.  Atmosphere vented and ignited as entire sections of the ship decompressed.

In Sunrider’s hanger, the Ryders toppled and smashed to the ground as the entire ship pitched and rocked with explosions and damage.  Their pilots scrambled and sprinted, fleeing the destruction and joining the ship’s crew in evacuating to the upper catwalk.

“Damn it!” shouted Icari, punching the glass window as she watched the Ryders tumble together into a messy heap as Sunrider rocked to port with a particularly violent blow.  “C-can’t we do anything!?”

The pilots clung to dear life as Sunrider continued to shudder and shake.  Reports of hull compromise and compartment depressurization streamed through on the overhead PA system, becoming increasingly garbled as the ship’s systems were overwhelmed.

“We’re all going to die!!!” screamed Claude, losing her head completely.

Eyeing the destruction around her, Asaga gritted her teeth and steeled her resolve.  The time had come.  If she did nothing now, the entire crew of the Sunrider would perish, an outcome that, no matter how she felt otherwise, was unacceptable.  If her sacrifice could make the difference, then that was all the reason she needed.

Staggering with the ship’s rocking, Asaga half ran, half crawled to Sola, whose face was as impassive as ever.  “Sola!” Asaga screamed.  The white haired girl looked at her with a hint of curiosity.  “We both know what that crystal is telling us.  Give it to me, now!”

Sola gave Asaga an appraising look before dropping it into her hand.  “As you wish,” she said quietly.  “It is your right to hold it, not mine.’

“Asaga!” Chigara cried from across the catwalk, realizing what her companion intended.

“Chigara… it’s time…” said Asaga, firmly looking away from her and struggling towards a hatch at the far end of the catwalk.  “Take care of yourself for me.  I’ll never forget what you and I did together.”

“ASAGA!!!” Chigara’s face dissolved into tears as she tried to reach out towards Asaga’s back.

“What the hell are you talking about?” demanded Icari from her handhold as Asaga struggled to pull herself past her.  “Where are you going?”

“Icari, take care of everyone for me.  You’re the CAG now,” said Asaga as Icari’s eyes widened in surprise.  “Oh, and I’m going to need this,” she said, jerking other pilot’s sidearm out of its slot on her hip before she could react.

Reaching her destination, she pounded her fist on the wall control, opening the hatch and revealing a series of seats packed tightly together; one of Sunrider’s escape pods.  Pulling herself in, she punched the door controls and hit the launch sequence without looking back, lest she be tempted into staying and avoiding her fate.  A series of heavy locks clanged shut and the entire pod shook as it blasted loose from Sunrider, dropping its single occupant into the darkness of space.

******

The CIC turned into a bloody show as damage reports streamed in from every corner of the ship.  Lights flickering and smoke filling the room, the entire CIC shook as Sunrider’s critical systems sustained hits.

“C-Captain!” coughed Ava, pulling herself back into her command station, having been thrown by a particularly violent explosion.  “Massive damage reported in all sectors!  W-we can’t-”

“L-launch Ryders!” Kayto clutched his side where something cracked against the armrest of his chair.  Grinding his teeth against the pain, he looked at Ava, who stared back in panic, eyes wide.

“T-there’s too many of them!” she gasped.  “C-critical systems damage, weapons and launch bays inoperable.  Engineering reports reactor at critical!  C-Captain!  Y-your orders!?”

Kayto dropped his gaze for a moment, the mayhem of the CIC fading as a clarity he had never known hit him.  No matter what they did, no matter what they tried, they were dead men and women.  No moment up until then, not their encounter with the Legion, not any other danger the Sunrider had found herself in, even compared with the absolute certainty of defeat that they faced at that moment.  But faced with such a situation, Kayto found calm; the eye of a hurricane surrounded by violence and desperation on all sides.

Looking back up, he let a peaceful expression rise to his face and looked Ava in her wild, fearful eyes.  Reaching out, he took one of her hands, gently.  “Ava…”

Ava flinched, trying to pull her hand back.  “S-Sir!  Y-your… orders…?”

“It’s all right, Ava…” Kayto smiled gently, fixing her with a warm gaze as her cheeks reddened.  “Been an honor…”

Ava’s eyes softened as the fight left her as well.  Awash in the chaos of Sunrider’s death throes, she tightened her hand around Kayto’s, grabbing onto the only anchor she could reach.  Looking at his peaceful smile, Ava felt something inside give, breaking through the walls and barriers she had set so firmly, years ago.  What she glimpsed beyond them was a beautiful, terrifying truth she had buried long ago.  Duty and honor threatened to crumble as she felt pangs of regret for the choices she had made in life.  So much remained unsaid between the two and, now, Ava felt something unfamiliar as she realized those words would go with her to their cold, dark grave.  A rebellious tear threatened to drop from her eyes as she opened her mouth, trying to find the words to make amends.  For a moment nothing came, but she forced herself to say something, anything.  “Kayto,” she screamed, trying to make herself heard over the alarms, fires, and explosions.  “I-”

“STOOOOPPPPP!!!!”

Asaga’s voice screamed over an open comm.  “WAIT!  I’M THE ONE YOU’RE LOOKING FOR!”

Asaga’s image flickered to life on the CIC, slightly distorted by dust and debris.  She stood staunchly, raising her hand and showing the glowing Crown Jewel floating above her palm.  “I am Princess Asaga di Ryuvia.  By my command, I order you to halt your assault, Cullen,” she demanded in an unfamiliar, powerful tone.

Sunrider’s battered frame stopped rumbling as the PACT fleet abruptly ceased their attack, the CIC’s alarms dropping marginally in intensity and volume.  “What the hell?” muttered Kayto as Ava dropped his hand, turning to her console.  “What’s going on?”

“Captain…” Ava’s voice was shaken and uncertain.  “Asaga’s transmission is coming from an escape pod.  She’s ejected herself towards the PACT fleet.”

“Well… I’ll be,” Cullen looked taken aback, stroking both of his chins with the sudden development.  “Who would’ve ever guessed you’d be hiding out here, Your Grace?  It appears you’re telling the truth, our scans confirm the authenticity of that crystal…”

Glaring at the camera, Asaga pointed her pistol to her head.  “Order your ships to fall back immediately or you’ll be explaining to Arcadius why his bride is headless.”

Cullen nodded, barely bothering to conceal his glee.  “All ships!  Emergency warp back to our base.  My flagship will rejoin you once we’ve brought the princess aboard.”

Sunrider’s crew watched in astonishment as the PACT fleet spun up their warp drives, disappearing as suddenly as they had arrived.  The remaining PACT battleship angled towards the escape pod, securing it with magnetic tractors and dragging it towards their open hanger bay.

Watching helplessly, Kayto looked at Asaga’s hologram.  “Asaga… All this time?”

“I’m… sorry, Captain,” answered Asaga, looking at the camera sadly, tears pooling in her green eyes.  “I’m sorry I lied to you this whole time.  But…” Asaga gave a big sniff and put on a genuine, if watery, smile.  “This is for the best, OK?  Farewell, Captain… thanks for all the fun times!”

Asaga’s video cut out as her escape pod passed into Cullen’s ship’s hull, her transmission unable to send more than sound data through the hull and shields.  “Cullen, take your ship to warp.  If you try anything, I’ll pull the trigger right now.”

“BWAHAHA!” Cullen chortled.  “You’ve got nerve, princess!  Prepare to warp!  Next destination: Ryuvia Prime!  We’ve got a Royal Wedding to celebrate!  BWAHAHAHA!”

Cullen’s ship jumped to warp, leaving the crippled Sunrider alone once again.

“Captain?” Ava asked as the CIC dropped into a stunned silence.

Kayto’s hand balled into a fist, so tight that it hurt.  “No… this isn’t farewell…” he whispered.  “Get our repair drones online,” he snapped at Ava, the iron in his voice shocking her slightly.  “We’ve got a wedding to crash.”

CHAPTER 14 >>>>