Chapter 14- Wedding Planning
Asaga said nothing, feeling slightly nauseous at the mere notion of the ship’s commanding officer, whom she had seen doing little except bellowing idiotic orders and stuffing his face glutinously with all manner of rich foods and drink.
“I was beginning to worry that I had lost you again! BWAHAHA,” continued Cullen, laughing at his own joke. “Not that there’s anywhere to actually hide on this ship. Guards! Leave us.”
The two PACT guards saluted aggressively before clicking their heels and marching out wordlessly.
“Now then, Princess,” said Cullen greedily. “We haven’t had the chance to get acquainted yet. I thought some privacy would be just the thing.”
“You’re arrogant, Cullen!” Asaga glared at his tone, crossing her arms against his repulsive leer. “You would do well to remember that I am Royal Consort to Arcadius; certainly above your station. Now leave me to my peace.”
“Hah!” Cullen threw back his head laughing, turkey chins wobbling. “Above my station, you say? No, it is you, Princess, who must consider your position. So long as you are aboard my ship, you belong to me…”
Asaga stifled a gasp and slapped his meaty hand away as he made to grab her, but Cullen’s other arm came around, pinching her buttock. “S-stop!” Asaga demanded, doing her best to keep her voice dignified and imperious.
“The royal blood of your sad, little planet means nothing anymore and you would do well to learn obedience at the heel of the Governor of the entire Neutral Rim,” said Cullen smugly, grappling with Asaga and pulling her into his bulk, restraining her arms and pinning them to her side. Asaga shuddered as he leaned into her neck, inhaling deeply and loudly. “Such a shame that you must be turned over to our Dear Leader so soon, my little flower. But…” Cullen licked her neck and ear, leaving a wet trail of slobber. “I’m sure a little taste would be fine…”
Asaga retched slightly, writhing wildly but ineffectually against the man’s massive and revolting habitus. “Y-you filthy, disgusting…” she hissed, tears forming involuntarily as she struggled against his violation.
“I see you’re enjoying yourself, Cullen,” a man’s voice came from behind them, soft and clipped. “A shame the same cannot be said for her.”
Cullen spun around to look at the newcomer as Asaga wrenched herself free of his grasp and staggered a few steps away from him, heaving. “Fontana…” he said in a tone of distaste. “What do you want?”
The man named Fontana pushed back his shoulder length purple hair, revealing a piercing blue-eyed gaze underneath his bangs. Thin whereas Cullen was fat, Fontana was young and dashing, dressed in the finery of a high-ranking Veniczar as well, although he had elected to wear a tight-fitting and high-collared longcoat over a matching suit vest, shirt, and slacks, rather than the robe Cullen sported. Pulling an old fashioned pocket watch from the pocket of his suit vest by its chain, he opened the antique’s metal face, consulting it studiously. “I merely wished to inform you that we will be arriving at Ryuvia within the hour,” he said with disinterest. “Veniczar Arcadius, himself, is coming aboard the Legion and will be assuming command of the fleet for the state wedding. We are to prepare for his arrival.”
Cullen sneered at Fontana, looking out the corner of his eyes at Asaga, disappointment ill concealed.
“As a word of advice, Veniczar,” Fontana continued in his quiet voice, somehow growing more menacing despite no outward change in appearance or tone. “You ought to show more respect towards the things you do not own and people whom you have no right to. Veniczar Arcadius is not known for his tremendously understanding disposition towards those afflicted with greed and envy.”
“I have no idea what you are talking about,” grumbled Cullen, slinking away towards the door. Fontana merely polished his pocket watch as the larger man heaved himself past towards the exit. “Now make yourself useful, get me the security plans for the wedding!”
As Cullen left the observation deck, still muttering empty threats and complaints to nobody in particular, Fontana let out a quiet snort of derision, clicking his watch shut and returning it to his pocket as he eyed the view outside. “I see our old Imperial is still up to his bad habits,” said Fontana, looking straight ahead as Asaga glared at him from his left. “You must allow me to apologize for his poor manners, your Highness. I hope the rest of our crew have afforded you the respect and deference a woman of your stature warrants.”
Asaga’s glare slowly melted away as she calmed down, realizing that she had Fontana to thank for the timely intervention. The young Veniczar was something entirely different than any other PACT Veniczar she had ever met or seen; almost likable, for one thing. “Thank you” Asaga said slowly, having never expected to give those words to a PACT Veniczar.
Fontana’s lips quirked up slightly as he gave her a small sideways glance. Turning to face her, he gave a small, courteous bow before turning to leave. “It was nothing, your Highness. Now, if there’s nothing else, I shall take my leave.”
“Wait!” Asaga let slip the word before she could stop herself. Fontana paused, arching a delicate eyebrow at her. “My name’s Asaga. It’s nice to meet you,” she said, identifying Fontana as possibly the only decent person she had met since being taken away from the Sunrider.
“A pleasure,” Fontana said dryly. “I’m sure we’ll be seeing much more of each other. Well then… my regards, your Highness.” Giving one more small bow, he strode from the deck, his longcoat billowing in his wake.
Left for dead by the PACT fleet, Sunrider and her crew took the risk of performing one additional emergency warp from the PACT ambush site as a precaution before initiating deep space repair of their traumatized ship. The last two days had been a hectic reminder of the days immediately following their flight from Cera as the crew worked almost non-stop to shore up their damaged ship. This time, however, their efforts were considerably aided by the use of automated repair drones and Chigara’s expertise.
“…repairs on the ship are almost complete, Captain. We should be combat ready within the hour,” said Ava, concluding her report of their progress, sitting across from Kayto in his office.
Kayto’s quarters were a mess, just like the rest of the ship, but the smaller things would need to wait in light of the situation. Apart from propping the holo of his sister back up, Kayto had done nothing but bury himself in work, organizing the repair teams and seeing to the restoration of their systems with almost manic energy. “Good, and what about Ryuvia?” he inquired.
Ava pushed a holo across his desk, several reports open on it, each with discouraging findings. “Icari pulled on every Alliance string she knew to get us this information,” said Ava, giving credit where it was due. “Looks like four PACT Fleets have arrived in orbit over Ryuvia Prime. The Legion only just arrived with Veniczar Arcadius aboard as well. All told, it looks like Asaga’s behind six hundred PACT ships and one super-dreadnought. Captain, saying Ryuvia’s under lockdown would be an understatement; they’ve got enough ships to have one fly over each square kilometer of the planet every three minutes if they wanted to. It’s not the kind of fight you go in and expect to come out… come to think of it, we won’t even be able to get in without being sunk first.”
Kayto tapped his lips with his stylus, choosing, for the moment, not to respond to Ava’s blunt assessment of the situation. Ordinarily, everything she said would be true, but their opponents had based their entire defensive posture on the same assumptions that Ava had based her analysis on. If those assumptions could be manipulated…
“I know that look,” Ava said warningly, giving him an unimpressed look as she crossed her arms. “You’re about to say something I won’t like.”
“Asaga’s a member of the crew,” Kayto said firmly. “No one gets left behind. Not while I’m Captain.”
“It’s because you’re Captain that you have to think bigger,” pushed back Ava. “Asaga’s one member of the crew. You have almost two hundred other crew members depending on you to make the right decision and a duty to protect the ship. Throwing away their lives on a suicidal rescue mission for a single person is not the best decision you can make.”
“That’s why it can’t be suicidal. We need to have a plan, something to turn the tables,” Kayto said, leading her on slightly.
“I’m dying to hear what kind of plan you have that could turn the tables on six hundred and one PACT ships,” said Ava, pinching her brow with a feeling that she would regret it.
“Fair’s fair,” grinned Kayto. “Chigara, come in.”
Chigara’s hologram appeared in Kayto’s office, taking a seat as though she were physically present. The girl looked utterly exhausted, with dark bags under her eyes. Her hair was unkempt and her face was smeared with machine grease, but her expression was one of delight and optimism, letting Kayto know instantly that she had succeeded in the project he had entrusted her with. “Ah… Captain, I was wondering when you’d call.”
“Ava and I were just discussing our rescue plan. Give us an update from your end; what have you managed to come up with?” asked Kayto.
“Captain, the Seraphim… it’s amazing! The Ancient Ryuvians had technology unbelievably superior to our own; I’ve only just scratched the surface!” Chigara’s voice bled excitement. “If we only had more time… but I think I’ve come up with a solution. I’ve managed to reverse engineer the Seraphim’s navigational guidance and targeting systems and piggy back them onto Sunrider’s existing warp drive controls. With the upgrades, my calculations show that we’ll be able to make pinpoint FTL warp jumps, exiting with less than eight centimeters of drift from target coordinates and control over our exit velocity to a hundredth of a meter per second.”
Both Kayto and Ava’s jaws dropped as they soaked in the update with wide eyes. Kayto had expected the reverse engineering of the Seraphim’s systems to yield an exploitable advantage to maximize their chances of a successful rescue operation, but Chigara’s upgrade to Sunrider’s warp systems was unprecedented in the extreme. Likely, her refinements to their warp drive represented the single greatest achievement in spaceflight in the last century, at the very least.
Giving both of them a look of extreme contentment, Chigara glowed, savoring the thrill of discovery. “With our new capabilities, we could warp the Sunrider with enough accuracy to drop a watermelon into a bowl in the mess hall. Well… if we had the coordinates of a watermelon… floating in space,” Chigara finished her presentation somewhat awkwardly.
“Chigara. You are Amazing,” Kayto said with feeling as the blue haired woman blushed brilliantly. “Get some rest, you deserve it.”
“Oh no, Captain!” Chigara blushed even harder at his concern for her well being and waved her hands rapidly. “There’s far too much for me to do! I still need to-”
“Captain’s orders,” overruled Kayto with a smile.
“Oh… well…” Chigara stammered a little, but beamed all the same. “I can hardly refuse an order, I suppose. Thank you, Captain. Chigara out.”
As her hologram disappeared, Kayto turned to Ava. “Looks like we’ve got a plan.”
“We’ve got pinpoint FTL capabilities, not a plan to overwhelm six hundred PACT ships,” said Ava, shaking her head.
“We won’t need to fight them,” said Kayto, pointing to the Alliance intelligence on her holo. “Look, all of their ships are holding high orbit. The largest concentration of their ships is above the Star Palace, where the marriage will take place. They’re positioned to respond to threats coming towards Ryuvia from deep space. With Chigara’s upgrades, we’ll be able to bypass them entirely. Sunrider will drop out of warp right on top of the Star Palace, behind their defensive lines. We’ll pick up Asaga and hightail it back into high orbit and make an emergency jump before the PACT can respond.”
Dead silence greeted his proposal as Ava mulled it over in her head. Nothing of the sort had ever been attempted in known history, but then again, Sunrider now had an ability hitherto unknown to history or science as well “That is the most… insane plan I have ever heard. If it were anyone else, I’d order a psych evaluation,” said Ava.
“It sounds outrageous, but it’ll work,” said Kayto confidently. “There’s no way they could possibly expect this.”
“Captain, you do realize that even if we warp in and get Asaga, we still need to clear Ryuvia Prime’s gravity well before we can emergency warp. If going in doesn’t kill us, coming out might,” Ava pointed out, ever the skeptic.
“One thing at a time, Ava.” said Kayto, downplaying the issue. “We’ll still have the element of surprise. That could change everything.”
Ava sighed deeply, burying her face in her hands before looking back up. “You’re as reckless as ever… but there’s no dissuading you once you’ve made up your mind.”
“Like I said,” Kayto said with a spirited smile. “No one gets left behind while I’m Captain.”
“Understood, Captain.” Ava gave him a small, sideways smile, his confidence infectious. “I’ll… be in my quarters, readying our battle plans.” Standing, she gave him a salute before leaving, her hair swishing behind her.
As Ava left his office, Kayto leaned back in his chair, flashing back to the moment when he feared Sunrider would be lost against the PACT onslaught. The warmth of Ava’s hand in his own still lingered, if only in memory. Since Asaga’s capture, neither had had time to sort through their own feelings, much less talk to each other about what had happened, not with the ongoing preparations for the rescue operation. Dragging himself back to the present, Kayto gave himself a mental shake. There would be time enough in the future to sort everything out, but at the moment, his priority had to be Asaga’s rescue, not his personal life.
“Beep Beep.” A private communications hail from Chigara alerted his cuff.
“This is Kayto, go ahead,” he said, answering the page.
“Ah… Captain… could I speak with you a minute? I’m down in Engineering,” asked Chigara plaintively. “I don’t think I’ll be able to get any rest otherwise.”
“Umm… sure. I’ll be down there in a minute,” said Kayto as Chigara hung up her end of the comms. Wondering what she wanted, he stood, stretched, and left his office.
“Ah… Captain,” Chigara gave Kayto a nervous smile as she gestured him over to her office in Sunrider’s research and development annex, this time expecting his company rather than being surprised by it. A boggling assortment of electronics, hydraulic parts, and disassembled weapons littered the space, each representing some half-finished project plumbed from the depths of Chigara’s mind and expertise.
As Kayto walked over, he noticed Chigara’s smile fade, replaced by a more nervous disposition. “Was there something you wanted to see me for, Chigara?” he asked.
“Yes, um…” Chigara looked down at her boots, tapping the floor nervously with the tip of one. “I don’t think I ever apologized to you about lying about Asaga… withholding the truth, rather… but still…” Looking up, Chigara waved her hands unhappily, agitated. “You know what I mean… I was dishonest with you.” Straightening, she clasped her hands in front of her and bowed her head in shame. “So, you have my apologies, Captain.”
“Relax, Chigara,” said Kayto in a reassuring voice. His Chief Engineer’s shoulders slumped in relief as she took a seat on the edge of her workbench’s surface. Kayto joined her, pushing aside some gadget without any clear function to make space as he sat beside her. “You did what you did to protect Asaga, not to harm anyone on this ship. Besides, even if we had known, I don’t think it would have changed anything… But anyways, apology accepted.”
Chigara gave him a small smile, putting a hand delicately on her chest as the tension left her body. “Thank you, Captain. I can’t tell you how much it’s been weighing on my mind since… since she left…” she said sadly. “You know… it was a huge shock for me too when I found out Asaga was the Princess of Ryuvia years ago, so I know how you must feel. Please don’t blame Asaga too much, Captain. She did what she did to escape a marriage to the Veniczar… I can’t imagine how it felt to be betrothed to a vile man like that…” Chigara gave a small shudder as she finished speaking.
“You’re right,” agreed Kayto. “I can’t blame her at all… being unwillingly engaged to a man like that… It’s a monstrous thing. On top of that, the Veniczar is a madman at the head of a tyrannical dictatorship. He would never honor an alliance between the PACT and Ryuvia. It’s just a superficial disguise over the PACT’s conquest of Ryuvia.”
“I’ve never cared much for the politics behind the marriage, but I know the Veniczar is evil.” Chigara’s face and tone hardened with anger. “He merely wants Asaga, the way a person would desire a tool or vehicle. She’s a prize to be won, along with the rest of the galaxy, and the Veniczar will do anything to make it all his. Alliances, politics, none of it has any worth to him; only power and conquest. To think that her own father sold her to a man like that… Ooohhh! It makes me so angry!” Chigara pounded her desktop with a surprising fury Kayto had never seen.
It was as though a side of her none of them had ever suspected had been revealed. Behind the social awkwardness and quiet, kind demeanor, there was a certain iron quality to Chigara. The same mettle which had led her to create and pilot Liberty in defense of her closest friends shone through now and Kayto could see with clarity the resolve with which she protected those who were dear to her. The moment passed like the end of an eclipse, Chigara looking somewhat embarrassed by her outburst, but still wearing an expression of determination.
“Don’t worry, Chigara,” he said confidently. “Thanks to your improvements, we’ll be able to get in and rescue Asaga before the Veniczar can even lay a finger on her. Once we do, she’ll have the chance to thank you herself for what you’ve done.”
Chigara blushed, giving him a tired smile. “I hope so, Captain.”
“Tell me more about how you met Asaga and found out she was the Princess,” asked Kayto, with curiosity. “Now that her secret’s out, you can give me the real story, right?”
Chigara giggled, “I suppose. But it’s probably not that different from the one you’ve heard before. It was years ago. Back then, none of us had even heard the name Arcadius and I was still a refugee from Diode. I got lost on my way to work one day and a couple of very nice gentlemen stopped to give me instructions. All of a sudden, we heard shouting from across the street and Asaga came running over, yelling at them. It wasn’t… very nice…”
“Go on,” urged Kayto as Chigara gave a sheepish grin, recalling their first encounter.
“Well… the gentlemen were, understandably, upset and things seemed to be getting out of hand,” Chigara brought the tips of her index fingers together in a guilty gesture. “It was getting dangerous for Asaga, so I used my hair ribbon to stun the men and ran away with her before she could get into any more trouble.”
“Wow… that was really different- wait, your hair ribbon?” asked Kayto, eyeing her hair ornament suspiciously.
“Yes,” Chigara beamed as she took the ribbon off her head, flipping it over and revealing a slim module underneath it. “It’s my own invention! It has a number of defensive options, but it can also play music, show time, act as a flashlight, clean hair, and a bunch of other things!”
“Umm, wow,” said Kayto, dumbfounded by the device. “Just… do me a favor and point it somewhere else?”
Chigara laughed, returning it to her head. “Don’t worry, you haven’t given me any reason to use it, not yet anyways,” she teased happily, finally seeming to feel at ease with him. “But what were we talking about earlier? Oh, right! Asaga told me that she was the Princess a little while after we ran away together. She said it so casually, I thought it was a joke at first, but when I found out it was the truth, I was shocked! But Asaga never thought of it as a big deal. To her, being Princess didn’t define who she was as a person; it was just an annoying detail. You can probably imagine why, but she never really wanted to take the political role her family intended her to. She was always saying how she wanted to leave Ryuvia and go adventuring.” Chigara’s tone saddened as she continued her story. “It wasn’t long before war got closer to Ryuvia. Asaga’s mother passed away and her father fell ill; nobody was talking about anything except succession of the throne and fear of the PACT. Asaga came bursting into my apartment one day and told me what her father had done; the agreement he had made to the Veniczar. We left everything behind and headed straight to the spaceport to run away. It was the only thing I could do to protect her. The rest of it wasn’t nearly as interesting; we became freelancers, working odd jobs to pay for fare to skip to the next planet. That’s what we were doing until we met you, Captain.” Chigara finished her story with a warm smile, leaving her happiness at the turn of events unsaid.
“Do you remember what you said to me when you first agreed to join the crew, Chigara?” asked Kayto rhetorically. “You said you would entrust yourself to my care. But the truth is, we all entrust our lives to each other. That’s why we’re going to Ryuvia to rescue Asaga, even if six hundred PACT ships want to stop us. Because she trusted us to and because she would do the same if one of us were about to marry a Veniczar. Get some rest, Chigara. You’re going to need it for the next mission.”
“Yes Captain!” Chigara stood with him, face determined. “I’ll do everything I can to save Asaga from the Veniczar!”
“I know,” said Kayto simply. “We’re counting on you.”
“One more thing, Captain.” Chigara held him back as he made to leave. Fumbling for a moment with something in her pocket, she withdrew a standard holoprojector memory crystal. “Asaga gave me this when we first came on board. She wanted you to have it if anything like this ever happened to her. I have no idea what’s on it; she only meant for you to see it.”
Kayto plucked the crystal from her slim fingers, eyeing it’s inscrutable depths with curiosity. “Thanks… I’ll take a look at this in my office.”
Chigara nodded and stifled a yawn, clearly ready to take Kayto’s offer of rest. Walking him to the door of her office, she added, “Thank you for coming, Captain. I feel a lot better now…”
“Ah. Is this thing on?” Asaga’s hologram tapped at something in Kayto’s direction, a look of concern on her face. “Hello? Hello? Can you hear me?”
Kayto chuckled a little as the holo played from the memory crystal Asaga had left with Chigara. Typical Asaga; totally unfiltered. “Yes, I can hear you,” he said aloud for the hell of it.
“I’m sorry, my responses are limited. You must ask the right questions.” Asaga’s face turned blank as she carefully enunciated her words.
Kayto sat stiffly upright in his chair. An interactive holo? But that phrase sounded awfully familiar…
Asaga’s face split into a mischievous grin a split second later. “Just kiddin’ Capt’n!”
“Damn,” Kayto sat back, nettled that he had fallen for her trick and resolving to tell no one of it.
“Anyways, I hope you’re the one listening to this,” continued Asaga, putting her hands on her hips. “If you’re someone else, you’d better turn me off right now and hand me over to either Chigara or the Capt’n!” Pausing, Asaga glared at the camera for a second before continuing. Face saddening, Asaga turned serious. “So… if you’re listening to this, Capt’n, it means I’ve left the Sunrider and I’m on my way back to Ryuvia. First, let me say I’m really sorry for not telling you about my identity. I’m really sorry I lied to you. Honestly… I thought what we had could really work out. I thought we’d be be able to travel with the Sunrider forever and beat the PACT in the ass for good measure. But, if you’re listening to this, then it means it’s time for me to wake up from my dream. When the time comes and I go back to Ryuvia, please don’t come after me. I know that’s exactly the sort of thing you’d do, Capt’n, but this time, please… don’t. I might not agree with what my father arranged, but he’s doing the right thing. Coming aboard Sunrider made me see that. You see… if I don’t marry the Veniczar, the same thing that happened at Cera might happen to Ryuvia. Millions of people could die… what’s left of our customs and traditions would be destroyed. Ryuvia’s suffered enough over the last hundred years; if we take even one more hit, it would be the end of our culture and way of life forever. I’ve seen the look on your face and behind your eyes whenever someone mentions Cera… and I don’t want my people to have to carry that same pain. If it only takes the sacrifice of a single person to save millions and the preservation of the galaxy’s oldest culture… if that’s the case, I’d gladly become the Veniczar’s bride!” Asaga looked at the camera with determination in her eyes. “There’s a legend we have on Ryuvia, Captain. Whenever the kingdom is in peril, the sacrifice of the Imperial Princess is necessary to save it. It’s a legend that’s repeated itself over and over again throughout our history and I’m ready to play my part in Ryuvia’s history, even if it wasn’t the role I wanted. I told you when we first met that I was a hero of justice… now, it’s time to prove it.” Asaga gave the camera one last look, her mind made up. “A hero doesn’t think about what she wants; she does what’s right for her people. Good bye, Capt’n. No matter what happens, know that I’m out there, rooting for Sunrider and listening for news of you guys. Keep Chigara safe for me, I know you’ll look after her.”
With that, Asaga’s hologram swirled and blew away gently, the memory crystal reaching the end of her recording. Slowly, Kayto plucked it out of the socket on his desk and looked deep into its clear depths. What she said was true, but hadn’t she been the one who encouraged him to do what was right, not what was easiest? Appeasing the PACT by going through with the marriage wouldn’t buy Ryuvia its independence or old glory; it would merely keep the PACT’s hounds from tearing her apart until after the ceremony. Clenching his hand around the crystal, Kayto shook his head. “A hero does what’s right for her people, even if they don’t know what to do themselves. Ryuvia may have given up against the PACT a long time ago, but you need to show them they were wrong. You’ll be Ryuvia’s hero by carrying their hopes and the torch of your people against the PACT. You’ll be the Ryuvian Princess who refused to surrender, even against all odds.”
“Beep Beep,” his communications bracelet chimed as he set the memory crystal down beside his sister’s photo on the display shelf behind him.
“Kayto, go ahead.”
“It’s Icari, got a minute?” asked the assassin.
“Sure, come on up,” said Kayto.
“Actually, I was hoping you’d come down here; I’m sort of busy,” Icari’s voice was a little irritable.
“Uhh,.. fine,” Kayto shrugged, a little curious why Icari would call if she was too busy to come up to his office in the first place.
“Service corridor, section four on deck 2. Icari out.”
Kayto wandered through the dark, warren-like service corridor that Icari had asked him to find her in. Ordinarily, only drones and the odd maintenance personnel would access this part of the ship as it was somewhat off the beaten path. The only real function the corridor had, other than the rapid transit of materials or workers, both robotic or human, from one place to another, was to house a number of Sunrider’s escape pods for that particular deck. Bright light spilled from one of the said pods, its hatch open; Kayto walked towards it.
“Odd place to meet,” commented Kayto wryly. “Part of me was wondering if you were planning on spacing me.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Icari said, sliding out from underneath one of the pod’s control panels. Glaring at him, she ignored his proffered hand and rose to her feet. “If I had wanted you dead, you wouldn’t even have time to wipe that stupid grin off your face.”
“Funny,” Kayto gave her a good humored smile. “I seem to recall you missing the last time you tried.”
“I-I did that on purpose!” Icari turned pink and crossed her arms cantankerously and pointing her nose in the air. “Besides! It’s not like I wanted to hurt you; I just needed to escape. N-not that I wouldn’t have!” Icari’s cheeks turned even brighter as she tossed her long black hair over her shoulder angrily. “Whatever, I didn’t call you down here to talk about any of that.”
“I assume you were going to explain why you were dismantling one of our escape pods?” asked Kayto, eyeing her handiwork on the pod’s gutted control panel.
“You’re going to plan a rescue op for Asaga, right?” Icari asked, her tone suggesting full well that she already knew the answer. “Chigara told me we were going to make a pinpoint jump above the Star Palace and crash the wedding.”
“That’s right…” Kayto said slightly defensively, sure that Icari would argue against it having seen intelligence reports herself.
Icari flashed him a roguish smile and patted the bulkhead of the escape pod. “Then you might need this.”
“Wait, you’re not against the op?” asked Kayto, surprised.
Icari turned pink again and took an extreme interest in one of her tools scattered on the floor, mumbling. “Well… maybe I’ve decided against my better judgment.”
“Who are you and what have you done with Icari?” joked Kayto, although he felt his spirits lift. Icari had come a long way since she first joined Sunrider’s crew. Despite their rocky start, it seemed she had genuinely grown to care, going as far as taking matters into her own hands to ensure their success for their massively risky rescue plan.
“S-shut up!” Icari pointed at him threateningly. “I-it’s not like I’m doing this for you or her or anything… I-I just want to stick it to the PACT, that’s all…”
“All right, all right,” Kayto put up his hands with a laugh and decided to let Icari off the hook while she still had some of her aloof dignity intact. “So tell me what you’ve been doing to the pod.”
“As you know, the pods are designed for one way trips off this ship,” said Icari, still a little pink at the cheeks. “Ordinarily, they’d drop their docking cradle once they’ve cleared the ship, but I’ve made a few modifications to the ejection sequence so that it stays on. Since Sunrider will be right on top of the Star Palace, we’ll be able to use these escape pods crash the party and get out without waiting for a shuttle or anything.”
Kayto looked at the escape pod thoughtfully. Icari’s idea essentially turned the escape pod into a drop pod, albeit one that would be able to return to the ship once launched. Given the incredibly small distance the pod had to fly, fuel wasn’t the problem; landing was. “Icari, those pods clear the hull at almost the speed of sound. Anyone in it will get pasted the moment it hits the ground.”
“I thought of that already,” said Icari, waving a hand dismissively. “This pod’s programmed to flip over once it clears Sunrider’s hull and activate main thrusters at the same time. It’ll be bumpy, but the simulations I’ve run look survivable.”
“How survivable?” asked Kayto suspiciously.
“Hey, these things are pretty well padded,” Icari shot back. “Don’t be such a sissy. Captain. Besides; we’re either getting in and out fast with some bumps and bruises, or we could all wait for a shuttle and get creamed by PACT security on the ground; your choice.”
“Hmm…” Kayto chewed on Icari’s proposal; the woman was right. Even if Sunrider avoided the six hundred PACT ships in orbit, they would still need to contend with the PACT security forces at the wedding. “And these pods can get us back to the Sunrider?”
“Absolutely,” Icari nodded confidently. “Once we’ve got Asaga, we just need to fire the thrusters we used to decelerate and shoot back up into the Sunrider’s Ryder launch tubes. The hanger crew should be able to grab onto our docking cradle with the magnetic grapples and bring us on board just like any other Ryder landing.
“I’m impressed, Icari,” Kayto gave her an appreciative smile. “This was some pretty sharp thinking.”
“Yeah? Well…” Icari did her best to ignore the compliment. “I’m just doing my job, saving your butt and all…”
“How fast can you make the modifications?” asked Kayto, an idea coming to him.
“A couple of hours, why?” Icari looked interested.
“I’m going to assign the marines to give you a hand,” Kayto said. “When we do this, I want some extra pods to launch. We’ll fill two pods with marines find and extract Asaga and pack combat drones in the other pods to create a distraction and occupy security while we get Asaga out. Once we’ve achieved the objective, all teams will retreat back to their pods and return to the Sunrider.”
“Alright,” Icari nodded. “That sounds like a plan. I’ll get them started as soon as they get here.”
“Thanks Icari.” Kayto gave her an approving nod. “I’m really glad you’re wearing one of our uniforms now.”
“Hmph,” Icari turned and ducked back into the escape pod, hiding from view. “I’m just doing this so that I can rub it in the Princess’s face later over drinks. Now get me some help or I’ll never catch a wink of sleep before the op.”
“Captain.” Ava greeted him as he walked into the CIC. “We’re almost ready for warp. The crew’s just making the final repairs to our systems. I’ve also been working on a battle plan, it’s almost ready.”
“Good work,” Kayto walked up to her command station. “You might want to know that Icari’s given us another edge,” he said, filling Ava in on the mercenary’s plan.
“I see…” Ava’s tone was also one of surprise. “That might actually work. It solves a lot of problems on my end actually… I’ll have to rethink a thing or two… was there anything else, Captain?” she asked, tapping her lips thoughtfully with a stylus.
“Actually, yes,” Kayto lowered his voice. “Asaga left me a recording for us not to follow her.”
“Well…” Ava arched an eyebrow at him. “Sounds to me like she has more common sense than you do.”
“Common sense aside, it’s the right thing to do,” insisted Kayto. “Listen… Ava…”
“Uh… Sir?” Ava’s arched eyebrow only rose higher as Kayto suddenly looked mildly embarrassed.
“If it were me… If I were the one captured and you were Captain, I know you’d smash right through the walls of the Veniczar’s Palace to rescue me.” Kayto looked at her expectantly.
Crossing her arms and giving him a humorless look, Ava twitched with what seemed like mild irritation. “You presume too much, Captain.”
“Oh,” Kayto deflated rapidly. “Ouch…”
Rolling her eyes, Ava gave a heavy sigh, perhaps feeling a twinge of remorse for her comment. “Captain, right or wrong, you have to understand why Asaga asked you not to go after her. Forget, for the moment, the fact that Ryuvia Prime is now the most heavily guarded PACT planet barring New Eden. Asaga asked you not to come after her because she’s thinking of the greater good for her people. The Ancient Ryuvians were the center of civilization long ago, powerful beyond anything we can imagine today, but look at them now. Their empire shattered, their mighty fleets gone, their people clinging onto the very last vestiges of their ancient history… Ryuvia Prime is no more than a backwater planet now, trapped in the past. We had a member of their royal family aboard our ship for two whole months and not a single person even recognized her. But even though they may never rule the galaxy again, they do have one final treasure to protect; their legacy. And that’s what Asaga’s doing. She’s asking you to let her preserve the legacy of her people.”
“That’s pretty much what she said in her recording,” admitted Kayto unhappily.
“I expect so,” said Ava with a nod. “But what she probably didn’t say was what would happen otherwise. Why do you think the Veniczar negotiated this marriage? It’s not for anything remotely like love, it isn’t even for lust or longing, in a typical sense. The legacy of the Ryuvians will essentially be his to inherit after the marriage. Arcadius will ascend the throne, take the title of Emperor of the Infinite Cosmos, and use it to solidify the PACT’s claim on the galaxy. Back in the ancient times, the Ryuvian Emperor was worshiped as a god; exactly the kind of power Arcadius wants for himself. What lengths do you think the PACT would go to in order to achieve that power? What do you suppose would happen if Arcadius couldn’t take the throne through marriage?”
“I-” Kayto started to speak, but Ava cut him off, continuing with a grim look in her eyes.
“The PACT’s now close enough to Ryuvia to take it by force, not that it would be much of an effort at this point. If Arcadius can’t marry his way to the throne, he’d destroy it. He’d destroy Ryuvia to claim mastery over its domain and to instill the PACT and himself as their successors in this galaxy. This marriage isn’t a negotiation, Captain. It’s a surrender. An offering by a dying civilization to a rising power, hoping to be spared from the coming flames of war. If we go to rescue Asaga… we doom Ryuvia to the same fate as Cera.”
“That would be true, if the Veniczar had any intention of honoring an alliance with Ryuvia,” rebutted Kayto. “Whether the PACT conquers a planet or accepts their surrender, the result is the same; every planet gets cut down to size and stripped mined for labor and resources. Ryuvia will be no different and this marriage and alliance is a farce in all but name. We might not be able to save Ryuvia from its fate, but we sure as hell can save Asaga from hers.”
Seeing Kayto’s eyes harden with determination, Ava relented. “I know, Captain. And I know you don’t change your mind once you’ve made a decision. I’ve said my part and you’ve listened. If it’s still your decision to go to Ryuvia Prime, I’ll see to it we have a battle plan to make this mission happen.”
“Thanks Ava,” Kayto said gratefully. “Get us ready to spool up and warp as soon as possible. Although I guess this means Claude will be staying with us a bit longer,” he joked.
“Ugh…” Ava grumbled unhappily at the mention of the woman’s name. For a moment, she seemed to struggle with herself until her restraint failed and a diatribe of complaints issued forth. “Captain, she’s already made a complete wreck of the crew quarters. She leaves toothpaste and shaving cream everywhere in the female lavatory. She’s spilled coffee twice in the lounge and just left it there for someone else to clean up. On top of that, she stays in bed all day and loafs around in her pajamas! The woman is a complete parasite!”
Ava practically trembled with indignity. “Why do all Ryder pilots have such crippling personality defects?” she demanded. “Or is it just the ones Sunrider got? I can’t believe we entrust fusion powered weapons to those people…”
“Looks like you’ve finally met your match,” Kayto said with a sympathetic smile. “Claude’s been pretty helpful, as a pilot anyways. Let me see what I can do; I’ll go have a word with her.”
“You can try, Captain. It’s almost 1200, she’s probably at the mess hall finishing breakfast,” Ava said scathingly.
“Alright, I’ll head over there,” Kayto said in a mollifying tone. “Let me know if anything comes up; otherwise, take the Sunrider into warp as soon as she’s ready.”
It wasn’t hard for Kayto to find Claude in the mess hall. The woman had shuffled down from crew quarters without changing, sitting at her table in a shockingly pink and fluffy bathrobe with matching lounge pants and slippers. To say that she stuck out like a sore thumb aboard the Sunrider was a breathtaking understatement.
“Good morning, Claude,” Kayto greeted as he took a seat with her.
“Oh, Captain,” Claude beamed at him. “Would you like some ice cream?” Holding her spoon out flirtatiously, she offered him a bite of her massive ice cream sundae, apparently her idea of breakfast, while she batted her eyes unashamedly.
“Uhh… no thanks,” Kayto eyed the sundae skeptically, his pancreas practically shriveling from the mere sight of it. How Claude maintained her figure was anyone’s guess. “I- do you flirt with every starship captain you meet?” he demanded with disbelief.
“Is that a problem, Captain?” asked Claude, giggling and making a show of coyness. “I only flirt with the cute ones, you know… and uniforms. I like men in uniform…” Claude’s eyes slid out of focus as she missed her mouth with her ice cream spoon, leaving a track of melted cream on her cheek.
“Right… never mind,” said Kayto, immediately regretting his decision to broach on the subject. “Forget I even asked.”
“What’s the matter, Captain?” Claude came back to the moment and gave him a disappointed look. “Don’t you think I’m at all attractive? What’s a girl have to do?”
“You’re plenty attractive,” said Kayto quickly, not wanting to open that can of worms. “But, come on, I mean, Ava would be after me with chains if I tried anything with anyone aboard Sunrider.”
“Ooohh,” Claude drooled a little. “That’s just naughty, Captain. But I could see it, Ava looks like the jealous type. What’s your relationship with her anyways? Ex-wife?”
“N-nothing like that,” Kayto felt his face heat up; suddenly the stiff collar of his uniform seemed tight and itchy against his skin.
“But you two have history,” pressed Claude, leaning in with interest, eyes sparkling. “Don’t even try to deny it, Captain.”
“We went to high school together, back in the day,” Kayto answered, leaning back as far as he could, regaining his composure. “We were… close back then. Not that we were dating or anything.”
“Unresolved romantic tensions?” Claude gnashing her teeth playfully at him. “Spicy. But that must make things awkward between you two.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” sighed Kayto. “Anyways, it’s just as well. I’m afraid I was never the dashing space Captain type you see on the holos.”
“Mmmm…” Claude played around with her ice cream, poking and stirring it thoughtfully. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that, Captain. Just the other day I caught that girl in engineering staring at some security photos of you. Are you sure you don’t have admirers on Sunrider?”
“Chigara?” Kayto’s eyebrows arched in surprise. “You’re making that up.”
“Why would I, Captain?” asked Claude innocently, pouting. “If it were up to me, I’d keep you all for myself…”
“Right…” Kayto crossed his arms as Claude drifted off into her own fantasies again. “Well, I didn’t come here to just chat about my personal life. Ava said you’ve been giving her a little bit of trouble.”
“Beh,” Claude dug into her ice cream with a look of supreme indifference. “That woman never lets up. Just because I’m staying aboard as a pilot doesn’t mean I want in on the whole ‘military’ thing. I keep telling her if she doesn’t take a break, her frown lines will only deepen and make her look even older. You’d think she’d be a little more appreciative of some girl-to-girl advice like that.”
“Look,” Kayto started, somewhat exasperated by Claude’s attitude. “Ava’s just doing her job and we need everyone to pull their weight around here, even pilots. Can’t you meet her at least half way and try to get along?”
“Oh, Captain!” Claude exclaimed suddenly. “I have narcolepsy! I’m feeling a sleep attack coming on… now.”
With that, Claude dropped her head into her arms on the table suddenly, snoring loudly and dramatically.
“Wow. Really?” Kayto gave her a big nudge to no effect. “Your ice cream’s melting.”
Claude continued to play dead, utterly ignoring him.
“Fine, have it your way,” Kayto stood. “Just remember your pilot quarters are a lot more comfortable than the brig. I won’t be the one letting you out if Ava decides to put you in there for a few days.”
Claude gave a loud snore, but with slightly less conviction than before as Kayto walked away.
Kayto left the mess hall, rubbing his eyes as he walked back to his quarters, contemplating a few hours of sleep while Sunrider made its way to Ryuvia Prime. Someone had switched all the lights off in the hall, plunging the entire length of corridor into darkness. The holo projectors on the walls showed the night sky outside the ship, giving the impression that he was walking in naked space, staring out into the dark and the twinkling of stars. Out here, on the very edges of civilized space, the starlight was pure and space, just so, stretching into infinite blackness punctuated by the gem-like radiance of stars. Cold and empty, but at the same time serene, the view was captivating, so much so that Kayto nearly walked headfirst into Sola.
“I-I’m sorry!” Katyo backed up quickly as Sola stood her ground, giving him a cursory glance out the corner of her eye before turning back to the view in front of her. “I didn’t see you there.”
Sola continued to look out, her pale skin and white hair glowing softly in the bathing light from the stars, saying nothing. Starlight reflecting in her amber eyes, Sola fingered her crew uniform’s fabric almost subconsciously, as though she was reminding herself of something. Respectfully, Kayto turned to share the view, the two of them sharing a moment of quiet in the deserted corridor.
“You must be confused,” said Kayto, finally breaking the silence.
Sola’s gaze dropped minutely. “…It’s dark,” she finally remarked. “I cannot tell if I have truly awakened or if I am still aboard the Sharr’Lac… dreaming… It would be a strange dream indeed.”
“You’ll have to take my word for it, but you’re back in the world of the living now,” said Kayto pensively. “Although sometimes I feel the same way… Real life can seem pretty unreal sometimes. Especially if you’d rather none of it happened.”
Sola contemplated his words for a few moments before nodding appreciatively and turning to face him, giving Kayto her full attention. “Did you wish something of me?”
“I know things were rushed earlier, but we never really had a chance to talk as much as I would have liked,” said Kayto, leaning forward on the railing by the holoscreens, peering out like a sailor in the crow’s nest. “I was hoping you would be willing to tell me more about your time.”
“The life I knew was during one of the Holy Ryuvian Empire’s most violent, dark times,” said Sola in a detached voice. “The Emperor and the crown prince were killed in an assassination, leaving the throne to my father, the second prince. Crow Harbour, the bastard son of the Emperor, laid claim to the throne and gathered his forces. Others, seeing an opportunity to rise or seize power for themselves, supported him, plunging our empire into civil war, the likes of which had never been seen. For fourteen years, our empire tore itself apart, brother seeking to kill brother. Thousands of ships were thrown into battle, millions… billions of lives lost on both sides. Entire worlds burned. Our empire would have shaken itself into oblivion with the force of our blows, had drastic action not been taken.”
“Drastic measures…” mused Kayto, thinking of the massive Ancient Ryuvian super-dreadnought adrift in the Mnemosyne Abyss. “You mean like your ship?”
“No,” Sola shook her head. “The awakening of that ship. The Sharr’Lac. A weapon of unimaginable power, only capable of being helmed by a daughter of the Royal family, her fate sealed from the moment she awakens the Sharr’Lac. The power of that ship comes at the price of her own life.”
“That sounds like a story straight out of legend,” observed Kayto, unsure whether to believe Sola or not. Clearly, the woman was still alive and talking.
“Perhaps,” Sola’s eyes looked disquieted. “But our technology was based on science, no different or more magical than yours. Long ago, many ships wielding the power of the Sharr’Lac were built, bringing devastation to the galaxy that surpassed anything you can imagine. Planets could be shattered with ease, entire fleets wiped out by a single ship. We even had the power to collapse the entire galaxy into a singularity if we had wished it. Humanity would have destroyed itself, had it not been for the wise decree of my ancestors. The Emperors of old sealed the technology, striking memory of its creation from our galaxy. The Sharr’Lac was all that remained, designed by decree to only activate with the life of the Emperor’s daughter. That way, no matter how arrogant, greedy, selfish, or short-sighted their descendants, no man would ever wield the power of the Sharr’Lac without second thought as in the old days. With that decree, our empire existed in peace and the Sharr’Lac’s power lay dormant.”
“Until you,” Kayto said, the implication dawning upon him. “Your father choose to sacrifice you, even though he knew…”
Sola’s face tightened as she turned away from him to look out once more. “It was a desperate time…” she whispered.
“From the wreckage, it looks like you did activate the Sharr’Lac,” Kayto mused. “But you’re still alive. How?”
“I…” Sola’s face rippled with confusion and conflict. “I… have already spoken too much of this. Please, I do not wish to discuss this any further.” Her voice was quiet, but her tone firm.
“I didn’t mean to pry,” apologized Kayto. “Could you tell me more about your eye? During the battle it was… glowing. I’ve never seen anything like that.”
“Do you find me unnatural?” Sola asked, her voice as flat as ever. “Perhaps I am not one of your species? Or perhaps you fancy I am an advanced android.”
“I-” started Kayto, unsure whether to take her deadpan statement as a joke or accusation.
“Fear not,” Sola looked at him sideways. “I am as human as any of you. My eye is merely the product of millennia of scientific research. Genetic modifications and nanite injections. Thanks to them, my vision can directly interface with my Ryder and magnify beyond the limits of baseline biology. This interface extends to the rest of my nervous system; I can essentially become my Ryder, boosting my piloting and combat capabilities… for a time, at least. You look surprised.” Sola finished her explanation with a blank look at Kayto’s astonished expression. “Perhaps it seems radical to you now, but it was a trite affair in my time.”
“You mean every Ryder pilot had capabilities like yours?” asked Kayto with wonder.
“No.” Sola answered. “Our emperors feared what would happen if the masses ever wielded powers like ours. By law, only members of the Royal family were allowed to modify themselves as such.”
“That’s hardly fair or just,” protested Kayto, surprised that the “enlightened” rules of the Holy Ryuvian Empire would have such a heavy handed restriction on their peoples.
Sola merely shrugged, once again declining to speak any more than absolutely necessary.
“So what now?” asked Kayto. “What are your plans?”
“I…” Sola looked more confused than ever. “I do not know. My time, my life… they’re all gone. Everything has changed. The war against the Fallen concluded centuries ago and history no longer even remembers the victors…” Sola’s voice turned bitter. “At the time, it seemed the most important thing in the galaxy, now… insignificant. Like me. I am nothing more but a relic of the past, living a hollow existence with no purpose left. I wish to close my eyes… drift into the darkness and become… nothing. As it should have been.”
“Sola,” Kayto said quietly. “You’ve lost a lot, maybe it even feels like you lost everything. But you still have your life. Most of us on this ship know exactly how that feels. But we carry on, fighting for what we believe in and finding joy with each other. You can rebuild the life you once had, find friends and purpose here, with us.”
“…Friends…” Sola tried the word out on her tongue.
“Like family, but without blood ties,” explained Kayto, not entirely sure if she understood the word or if the Ancient Ryuvians called friendship by a different word.
“I have never known friends or family,” Sola said quietly without emotion.
“We call that being lonely,” said Kayto gently. “But it doesn’t have to be that way. I don’t know what happened to you before you wound up in that tube aboard that ship… but what happens to you now is up to you. You can join our crew on the Sunrider, find a place and a purpose for yourself again.”
Sola turned away from him, hiding her face. “I have no desire for friendship. This life I have awaken to is cold and empty… but I have nowhere else to turn or go. I will accept your offer, not for camaraderie or to join your family, but because I have no other choice. For now, I shall remain aboard your ship. You may consider me a member of the crew if it pleases you.”
Kayto nodded, taking what he could get for now. “Welcome to the crew, Sola. So you’ll help? The technology on your Ryder is beyond anything we have now. We’ll need that edge to save Asaga.”
“The current Princess?” Sola turned around slowly. “My life still belongs to Ryuvia. Even millennia after my oaths, I am still sworn to protect her. I have already thrown my life down for Ryuvia and will not hesitate to do so again. Very well, Captain. I cannot improve your technology, even if I wished it, but you will have my aid as a marksman. So long as you face the same powers that threaten Ryuvia, I shall stand with your forces.”
“Thank you,” Kayto said with feeling. “But don’t talk like that. This time, we’re all going to come out of it alive. Watch yourself out there and make sure you come back home in one piece.”
As Kayto walked away, leaving Sola to her own thoughts, her face rippled in confusion. Reaching up to the holo, she touched at her own simulated reflection, running an finger down her cheek and sending rainbow distortions splashing across her delicate features.