Chapter 15- You May Now Rescue the Bride

Ryuvia’s Star Palace was an astounding feat of engineering, a relic from the glorious past of the Holy Ryuvian Empire.  Suspended high above the planet’s surface by a series of anti-gravitational lifts, the entire palace complex and its accompanying grounds, dozens of acres in total, floated like a mythical island.  From on high, the Ryuvian Royal family had held court and attended to matters of the state for millennia.  The pending royal marriage would be no different, held within one of the palace’s hallowed halls.From space, a blood red shuttle descended from the massive hull of the Legion, it’s teardrop shaped hull banking and drawing a fiery streak across the sky.  Engines screaming, the shuttle sliced through atmosphere like a flaming meteor before its retrothrusters blazed and slowed its descent towards the Star Palace.On the grounds, columns of PACT ceremonial guards, their crimson armor polished to a diamond reflective shine, stood in disciplined formation, their heavy laser rifles shouldered at attention.  Across from them, the Ryuvian Royal Guard arrayed symmetrically, their resplendent robes and nervous faces reflected in the impassive, mirrored helmets of their PACT counterparts.  As he strode down the central aisle from the palace entrance, Veniczar Cullen’s girthy figure and bright robe was unmistakable.  Beside him, Fontana walked and eyed the shuttle’s descent expectantly, wearing his usual and conservative dress.Spinning to present her side, the shuttle drifted downwards, the heat of its hull making the air dance around it.  Completing its descent, the shuttle hovered for a moment above the ground before deploying its landing gear and passenger ramp.  With a hiss, the invisible door in the side of the shuttle opened, revealing its hidden seams; Fontana dropped to one knee while Cullen saluted, head bowed.

In silence, Veniczar Arcadius descended from the shuttle, blue hair rippling in the wake of the shuttle’s engines, his slim and rather short stature completely at odds with the power he wielded and the cult of personality that had sprung up in former territories of the New Empire.  Dressed in an unremarkable suit with a wine-colored shirt and the expressionless, pointy eared mask that he had become known for, the Veniczar’s appearance was equally at odds with the splendor of the Star Palace and the decorum of the event.  Two of his personal guard, nearly identical to the honor guard save for crimson capes that fell to the floor, followed him closely.

“My Veniczar,” greeted Fontana, still kneeling, head bowed.  “Welcome to Ryuvia.”

Arcadius came to a stop in front of his two subordinate Veniczars, looking around at the Star Palace and the extravagant greeting inscrutably.  “Rise, Fontana,” he ordered in a high-pitched, computer generated voice.  “This world was once the center of humanity… how the mighty have fallen.  If only we could see the Star Palace as it was millennia ago, filled with the riches and splendors of the Holy Ryuvian Empire as it was intended to be seen.”

“Hah!  Fear not, my Lord.  The halls of the Star Palace are plenty baroque to this day,” chortled Cullen loudly, his small watery eyes shining with greed.  “Jewels and gold on every surface, sweet meats and delicacies from around the galaxy.  Shrimp cocktail so big I can’t tell if they’re lobsters!”  Cullen smacked his lips appreciatively.

“Cullen.”  Even through the computer-filtered voice he used, Arcadius sounded disdainful.  “Both of you, walk with me,” he instructed as he strode past them, looking straight ahead at the palace.

As they passed row after row of honor guard, the Star Palace doors loomed closer, their finely wrought surface depicting the old glories of the empire, and creaked open, admitting the three Veniczars to the palace atrium.  Above them, a massive, slowly rotating chandelier comprised of a hundred individually floating and glowing crystals twinkled, illuminating the richly carpeted and furnished entrance to the Star Palace.

“Gilded treasure.  A superficial coating of splendor and wealth to conceal the underlying rot and weakness.  This hall is little more than a shadow of its previous self, much as the Ryuvian Empire is itself,” commented Arcadius, disregarding the spectacular scene with little more than a glance.  “We are unimpressed by such trivialities.  Tell us, how goes the invasion of the Neutral Rim?”

Somewhat chastised by Arcadius’s dismissal of what he considered “baroque,” Cullen hastened to answer and recover in the Veniczar’s eyes.  “Nearly complete, my Lord!  The barbarians of the Neutral Rim are no match for my forces.  Day by day, more of their worlds eagerly join our Revolution.  Those that resist… well, let’s just say our cannons prove to be more than sufficient reason to cast aside their differences and join our glorious empire.  Nothing can stop us now, my Lord.”

“Satisfactory.”  Arcadius turned to look at Cullen with his blank stare.  “We never expected the Neutral Rim to be anything but a testing grounds for our forces.  Their conquest and subjugation is but a formality.  Our true objective lies at Far Port.”

Flushing slightly, Cullen looked rebellious.  “I have not forgotten, my Lord.  Five of my best fleets are within strike range of Far Port.  Those Alliance cowards have done nothing to impede our plan.  By your order, my fleets can deliver Far Port into your hands within the week,” Cullen declared confidently.  “With Far Port captured, the gates to Alliance space will be smashed open, and our forces will march victorious onto Solaris itself while the Solar Congress remains paralyzed by inaction and cowardice.”

“Careful, Cullen,” cautioned Fontana, his tone even.  “The Alliance is different from the backwater planets you have dealt with thus far.  Brute force tactics will not work against a foe that can match our numbers.  Despite their political inaction, we must recognize that they will not be so easily defeated if we are to secure victory against them.”

“Ha!” Cullen waved a dismissive hand at Fontana, drawing himself up and puffing out his chest.  “By your fleets, perhaps.  You shame yourself with your cowardice, Fontana.  No force in the galaxy, not even the Alliance can stand before the might of my fleets.”

“Very well,” Arcadius said in a tone that invited no argument.  “Cullen, we shall see if you can translate your words into results.  You will take your fleets to Far Port and secure our beachhead into Alliance space.”

“Thank you, my Lord,” said Cullen with relish, bending into a bow with effort.

“Now, show us to our chambers.  We wish to speak with our betrothed.”

******

Asaga stared glumly out of the window, her homecoming offering her no comfort.  Even though she was home, back in the same Star Palace she had lived her entire childhood in, its walls were cold and foreign to her.  Dressed in a stunning wedding gown, spun from the finest silks imported from half way across the galaxy, Asaga looked at her own reflection with no recognition.  The girl who stared back at her was empty, a shell intended to cover her true identity.  Which was, of course, what the Royal court and the Veniczar wanted in the first place.

The chamber’s sealed doors opened with a hiss, admitting Arcadius and his two personal guard before closing and locking with a deafening clang.

“Our beloved… are you ready for eternity?” asked Arcadius, his computer generated voice and impassive mask unable to hide the mockery Asaga knew he intended.

Glaring at the Veniczar, Asaga took in the details of her betrothed for the first time, somewhat shocked by the Veniczar’s height.  Wildly unimportant, the sudden thought that she was at least two inches taller than her husband-to-be with her heels on sprung into her mind.  “Y-you!” Asaga hissed, incensed at the humiliating situation.

The Veniczar laughed, his voice setting Asaga’s neck hairs on edge.  “Truly, your father was naive to believe that such a pathetic offering such as yourself would stay our hand in bringing the Revolution to his dying world.  Our Revolution shall make the one truth he has been denying his entire life self-evident; that the days of the old Ryuvians are finally over.  We shall hold the fate of the galaxy in our palm as the emperors of Ryuvia once did, but that power will forevermore rest at New Eden, not this blighted husk of a planet.  Once we have plumbed every last secret from this world, Ryuvia will fade into oblivion as it was meant to, outshone by the glory of our Revolution.”

“Not if I stop you!” Asaga cried, rushing at the Veniczar suddenly, a concealed knife she had palmed from the banquet hall earlier dropping into her hand.

“Fool.” Arcadius snapped his fingers.  Before Asaga had even taken two steps towards him, one of the guards stepped between them and slammed the butt of his rifle into her midsection, causing her to double over in pain.  Clattering, the knife fell to the ground.

As Asaga gasped for breath against the pain and fell to her knees, the Veniczar slowly walked until he towered directly over her.  “Such impertinence.  Your life belongs to us now.  Your body, your mind.  You will learn to serve us in time.  When your soul has been crushed, you will be nothing more but an obedient dog, eagerly licking at her master’s boots.”

“Never!” gasped Asaga.

“Silence!” Arcadius snapped his fingers once more and the guard gave Asaga a swift kick in the ribs, precisely aimed and delivered to inflict maximum pain without breaking any bones.

Gasping and curled up protectively on the floor, Asaga struggled to stay conscious and keep her eyes fixed on the Veniczar, hoping her defiance would shine through the riveting pain.

“How cruel is destiny,” remarked Arcadius, turning away from her.  “That it is we who must suffer while a worthless doll like you holds a destiny greater than our own.  But in mere hours, your destiny will no longer matter.  We shall take ownership of that as well.  And with you, come the keys to a power this galaxy has not known in millennia.  A frozen shiver shall run down the spine of the galaxy, titans and peons alike will bend the knee before our might!”

Arcadius finished his speech, his high pitched laughter filling the chamber and roaring in Asaga’s ears, giving voice to her despair.

******

The wedding hall was packed as the entire Royal court and various PACT dignitaries sat, each on their respective side of the hall, watching the wedding ceremony.  Both Asaga and Arcadius stood at the alter in front of their audience with King Jalor in between them.  Holding a scepter with a massive jewel the size of a grapefruit and wrapped in robes encrusted with crystals and precious gems, the King of Ryuvia looked older and frailer than ever, his weak, reedy voice straining to be heard by the entire hall.

“Honored guests, I, King Jalor di Ryuvia, sole monarch of the Ryuvian Empire, keeper of the proud traditions of our fathers a hundred generations before us, guardian of their legacy and treasures, welcome you to bear witness to this historic and precious day.  Today, my beautiful daughter, Asaga di Ryuvia, all that is of value to me in this world, gives her hand in marriage to the righteous and honorable Veniczar S. Arcadius.”

Jalor turned to Arcadius’s blank mask, solemnly reciting the rites of marriage.  “Does the honorable Veniczar S. Arcadius take Princess Asaga di Ryuvia as his lawfully wedded wife, to love unconditionally in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, and in joy and in sorry, to cherish and to hold for as long as he shall live?”

Arcadius’s voice was cold and clear in the silent hall.  “We do.”

Jalor turned to his daughter.  “And does Princess Asaga di Ryuvia solemnly pledge to take Veniczar S. Arcadius as her lawfully wedded husband, to love unconditionally in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, and in joy and in sorry, to cherish and to hold for as long as she shall live?”  With expectation, he looked into her eyes, her sad expression reflected dully in his old, rheumy eyes.

“I…”

Asaga’s voice quivered as she tried to force the words she knew were expected of her from her lips.

“I…”

The entire audience was silent, the weight of their stares pressing down upon her.

“Ahem,” Jalor cleared his throat.  “Then I do declare you husband and bride.” Jalor stepped back, inviting Arcadius and Asaga closer to each other.  “You may kiss the bride.”

Asaga remained riveted on the spot, unwilling to take a single step closer to Arcadius.  For his part, Arcadius simply tossed his head back, letting loose with a maniacal laugh that echoed through the silent hall.  Whispers broke out among the Ryuvian Royal court, anxious and uncomfortable.  Jalor simply bowed his head, whether out of resignation or shame, no one could tell.

“At last, our time has come,” announced Arcadius.  “We’re afraid this game of charade is now over, your Majesty.  Your pathetic and corrupt kingdom shall now be extinguished from the galaxy.  All that will remain is our Eternal Revolution.”

“What?”  Jalor’s hands shook with fury, all pretense abandoned.  “We had an agreement, Veniczar!”

“An agreement made of paper.” Arcadius’s voice was pitiless.  “We allowed it while it was convenient to do so.  But now, Ryuvia has no more to offer us.  We have no reason to indulge your fantasies any longer.  Men!  Seize our guests!”

With blinding speed, the PACT honor guard drew their weapons, unquestioningly obeying the words of the Veniczar.  The uncomfortable atmosphere of the wedding shattered to a thousand fragments as their weapons whined, charging, pointed at the heads of the Ryuvian court.  Powerless, the outnumbered Ryuvian Royal guard barely had time to put up their hands before the PACT soldiers executed them without a trace of hesitation, their laser rifles boring neat holes between their eyes.  Anyone who ran or screamed met the same fate with equal prejudice.

“Y-you!” screamed Asaga, her shriek the only sound in the otherwise silent and terrified hall.  “I knew it was all a trick!  You’ll pay for this, Arcadius!”

“Silence,” Arcadius ordered.  “You will now serve us, lest my temper be tested.  You will cooperate, on the pain of your father’s life.”  Nodding to one of his personal guard, Arcadius gestured for the soldier to level his weapon at Jalor’s chest.

Asaga bit her tongue, a tear rolling down her cheek as despair threatened to consume her.

“The time of the Ryuvians is over,” declared Arcadius.  “For ten thousand years, Ryuvia ruled the galaxy, but no longer.  On this day, the PACT secures its place in history and succeeds your empire and destiny.  We shall extinguish the final, flickering ember of the Ryuvian Empire and inherit your title as masters of the galaxy.  This is our future.  This is our destiny.”

“Hahahaha…” Jalor chuckled grimly, hobbling forward towards the Veniczar.  The ceremony and formality had disappeared from him as he discarded his regal persona.  “Empty words Veniczar.”

“You dare-?”

“All my life, I have ruled Ryuvia,” said Jalor, ignoring Arcadius and advancing on him slowly.  “In doing so, I realized the truth long ago.  All our traditions.  All our rites.  All our culture… They are but a sad remnant of our former selves, meant to cloak us from the inescapable fact that we have grown weak.  You’re too late, Veniczar.  The Ryuvian Empire ended a thousand years ago.  All that is left is embodied in me; a tired old man whose time has come and gone.  Go ahead, have your man shoot.  All that you have accomplished today is killing an old, frail man in cold blood.”

“You talk too much.  As you wish then,” Arcadius nodded.

“NOOOOO!” Asaga screamed as the PACT soldier’s laser rifle discharged with a brilliant flash of light.  Jalor’s frail frame shook as the energy beam lanced into his chest.  For a moment, he stood, clutching his scepter with one hand, his chest with the other, before crumpling.

“Father… father…” Asaga sobbed as she fell to her knees by his side, grabbing him and pulling his thin body towards her own.  Jalor’s old eyes met her own and a bloodstained hand trembled as it reached up to stroke her cheek.  Asaga’s tears fell thickly, all the animosity and anger towards his decision to marry her to Arcadius vanishing in an instant.  No matter what wrong he had done her in the past, he was still her father and, as his life faded from his body, she knew she had to forgive him.

“I’m sorry… Asaga,” whispered Jalor, face pale and strained.  “It was the only way… I never negotiated for the safety of Ryuvia… but he promised me… that you would be spared if you wed him. I had to…”

“FATHER!” Asaga let loose with an anguished scream and turned to Arcadius.  “YOU!”

“Prepare my shuttle,” Arcadius turned, unmoved, and began to walk away from the alter.  “We shall return to the Legion.  Seize the guests; they will now serve the PACT.  We shall dissect this world until every last secret is ours!”

“YOU BASTARD!” screamed Asaga at Arcadius’s back, beyond caring whether the man ordered her to be killed as well.  “You’ll pay for everything you’ve done today!”

“Oh?” Arcadius paused, looking over his shoulder with something akin to amusement.  “We are Veniczar Arcadius!  No force remains in this galaxy that can challenge us.  Our time is nigh and we now have the keys unlimited power.  We shall be unstoppable!”

Clenching her hands around her father’s robes, Asaga buried her face into his chest for one last time.  Gauntleted hands roughly grabbed her around the shoulders, trying to haul her to her feet, but Asaga fought wildly, straining to stay with her father and fighting against the inevitable.

A sudden wall of noise slammed into the Star Palace, shattering every window in the ornate hall and showering the stunned gathering with a thousand sharp fragments.  Screaming and pandemonium broke loose; nobles bolted and PACT soldiers started firing.  Craning her neck upwards, Asaga saw the source of the noise, terror and shock striking into her heart as nothing else had inspired that day.

“No…” she whispered.  “It can’t be… NO!”

******

Sunrider’s CIC had plunged into red with all hands at battle stations.  Kayto grimly eyed his control station’s readouts as the Sunrider shook jarringly; the wild and unbelievable readings from sensors making him more than a little nervous.  Ordinarily, FTL travel did not permit ships to disengage warp under the presence of strong gravitational fields, much less make pinpoint jumps, but Chigara’s upgrades to Sunrider seemed to be holding.

“Engineering!  Are you seeing these fluctuations?” demanded Kayto.

“Captain,” Chigara materialized in the CIC, nervously wiping her brow.  “We’re still within Sunrider’s tolerances.  So far, we’ve still been able to compensate for the gravitational distortion to our warp bubble.  My simulations show we should reach our target coordinates in one piece…”

“Should… good to know,” Kayto cut the comms to let Chigara concentrate on her job.  “All hands, prepare to disengage warp!”

A digital countdown clicked down on the main screen as Engineering took the helm, the timing necessary for transition back to normal space too delicate to trust to human hands.  Sunrider rattled once again, her entire structure groaning as she smashed her way through gravitational distortions and eddies.  Kayto gritted his teeth as the countdown reached zero, Sunrider giving one final spine-rattling jerk.  Holding his breath, Kayto made a full systems check on his console; Sunrider had emerged in one piece.

“Warp successful!” reported Ava as the main screens activated, giving the crew a view of the splendor of Star Palace.  “We’ve exited four hundred meters above the reception hall.”

“All assault guns fire!  Take out their surface craft and any other PACT targets you see.  Prep the drop pods and launch drone pods now!” ordered Kayto.

As predicted, the entire PACT fleet had been placed in orbit, leaving the Star Palace relatively undefended.  Aside from several wings of atmospheric fighters and surface gun installations, the PACT’s military presence in Star Palace was limited to the infantry they had brought.  Sunrider’s assault guns blazed away, shredding the grounded aircraft before they had a chance to take to the sky.  Amidst the pandemonium and confusion, Sunrider’s offensive was virtually unimpeded as she fired dozens of her guns, adding to the panic.

Along her underside, several slots opened up in her armor as four modified escape pods blasted free, engines blazing.  Rather than turn over, however, these pods accelerated downwards, smashing into the walls of the Star Palace and breaking through.  On landing, they blasted plums of dust and smoke into the air before their hatches blew open, revealing interiors packed with combat drones.  Having landed in four separate areas of the Star Palace, the drones were tasked with keeping PACT security busy and off-footed, drawing them away from the reception hall.

“Captain, the final two drop pods are ready to launch.  I will lead the security team,” said Ava, releasing herself from her command station.  “You have the CIC, Sir.”

“No, Ava, I’m coming too,” said Kayto, slapping his own harness’s release

“Captain,” Ava crossed her arms and glared at him.  “Protocol strictly states that the Captain is to remain on the bridge during all high-risk away and surface operations.”

Pulling out her handbook, Ava rapidly flipped through the pages to find the regulation she cited.  “Section 48, paragraph 8; During level 9 security protocols, the ranking officer must-”

“HELL NO.”  Kayto snatched the handbook out of Ava’s hands, startling her with the iron in his voice.  Tearing the book down its spine, Kayto glared back at her.

“Right this way, Captain,” Ava quickly turned and lead him, clearly deciding any further argument was wasted time.

The two sprinted down the hall and to the sub-deck where their drop pods had been prepared.  Icari stood at the threshold, tapping an armored foot impatiently, dressed in her yellow Ryder armor.

“Took you two long enough,” she snapped as they all ducked into an open drop pod, joining a detachment of marines.  “What’s the matter?  Did you lovebirds get into a fight?”

Any retort Ava or Kayto had for Icari was shoved back into their throats as the entire drop pod accelerated brutally as soon as the restraints snapped shut on the final passengers.

Shaking, the pod rammed down the magnetic acceleration track, sending sparks flying in its wake.  Rocketing loose from Sunrider’s hull, the entire pod flipped over as soon as it cleared.

“I think I’m going to be sick…” groaned Ava, her face turning pale as the pod performed its maneuvers with no regard for the comfort of its passengers.  Nobody else looked very calm either, even the marines behind their mirrored visors were probably struggling to hold down their rations.

The two drop pods with two security teams fell in unison, their rear engines pushing against the acceleration Sunrider had given them to leave the hull.  Their descent was far slower than the pods carrying the combat drones, but even so, the pods slammed through the roof of the reception hall, shattering a millennia old stained glass rooftop, at nearly eighty kilometers an hour before hitting the ground, showering the stunned and panicked wedding audience with dust and rubble.

Immediately, the restraints released from the pod’s passengers and hatch popped open.  Without a word, the marine squad piled out of the pod, charging into the dust cloud and forming a defensive perimeter.  With a combination of hand signals and helmet comms, the marines fanned out, sweeping the area as planned.  “Contact! Eleven o’clock!  Drop site is hot!”

The staccato whine of laser fire filled the air as the PACT guards traded fire with Sunrider’s marine detachment.

“Captain,” the squad leader’s voice was professional and detached.  “My men will keep the PACT busy, find the package and haul ass back to the pod.”

“Let’s go!” Kayto lead the way out of the pod, coughing slightly, eyes watering in the dust.  Suddenly, he became far more aware that he was wearing nothing but a naval uniform and light deck boots.  It seemed a gross oversight in planning that he had not thought to pull on an armored suit like the ones the marines wore.

Icari and Ava followed.  Icari, apparently having the same thought as Kayto, impatiently threw him behind her as she took point, pistol at the ready.

“Asaga’s probably up by the alter,” she yelled, pointing an armored finger towards the ruin front of the ceremony hall.

******

“Take cover!  We have a security breach!”  Fontana pulled Cullen and threw him behind the pew unceremoniously before joining him, diving for cover as laser fire stuttered in every direction.

“Bah!” Cullen blubbered.  “Destroy those drones!  Where the hell are our forces!?”

“Fools!” Arcadius’s high voice was cold and angry.  “It is but a single ship; blow it out of the sky!”

“The fleet’s in disarray,” Fontana reported, his calm cracking slightly.  “The nearest ships are beginning emergency descent, but they won’t be here for several minutes.”

“Captain!  Over here!” Asaga yelled.

The three Veniczars turned to look at her in surprise, having entirely forgotten about her since the shooting started.  Asaga hitched up her wedding gown and hurried towards the dust and chaos, running as fast as her heels would allow her.

“Not so fast!”  Cullen lunged out from behind the pew with surprising speed for a man of his size, clamping a meaty hand around Asaga’s ankle.  “Oh no, your Highness!  You’re not going anywhere!”

Asaga teetered, off balance with Cullen pulling at one of her legs.  “Eah!  Let me go, you fat walrus!”

“You disrespectful little whelp,” growled Cullen, wheezing as he kept a firm grip on her.  “I’ll teach you to-”

“Veniczar Porkchops!  Let her go!” Kayto rushed out of the dust cloud with Ava and Icari, the three of them with guns drawn.

“Y-you!  I should have killed you when I had the chance!” Cullen’s face was alight with fury.  Distracted by the barrel of the gun pointed at his head, Cullen’s grip loosened for a moment, allowing Asaga to wrench her foot out from his grasp.  Without hesitation, she brought her heel down brutally on the man’s hand, crushing it with all her strength.

“AAAGGRRHH!”  Cullen screamed.  “You bitch!”

Not done yet, Asaga let up on his hand and delivered a kick straight to the man’s face, taking no small pleasure in feeling his nose cave in under her foot.

“Asaga!” Kayto grabbed her and pulled her away from the writhing and screaming Veniczar.  “We’ve got to get out of here!”

For a moment, it looked like Asaga wanted to protest.  Kayto holstered his pistol and scooped her into his arms, having no time for a debate or Asaga’s heels while Sunrider’s marines and crew were waiting for their return for extraction.  Asaga gave a small shriek of surprise, turning a brilliant shade of pink, but put her hands around Kayto’s neck all the same.  “This is the Captain!  I have Asaga, we’re coming back now!” he roared into his communications as he turned and ran, carrying Asaga.

Ava and Icari backpedaled with him, sweeping their guns to protect the rear.  A sudden shot rang out from above, drilling a sizzling hole into the floor over Kayto’s shoulder; someone was aiming to kill.

“Captain!  Two in the rafters!”  Asaga grabbed the pistol out of his holster deftly, firing the entire clip, deafeningly loud as the gun barked only a foot away from his head.

One of the PACT soldiers fell, crashing down into the pews below, while the other dove for cover, pinned by Icari and Ava’s cover fire.

“Uh… thanks,” panted Kayto, running as fast as he could back towards the waiting pod.  Unceremoniously, he half-put down, half-threw Asaga into a seat in the drop pod.  “Asaga’s been secured, prepare for extraction!”

“Roger that,” came the marine squad leader’s voice as Icari and Ava also piled in.  One at a time, the marines disengaged, withdrawing their protective formation and pulling in the wounded first.

Kayto buckled in, breathing out in relief as the marines all returned, all of them still mostly ambulatory and definitely alive.  “We’re clear!  Commence stage two!”  Kayto ordered as he hit the pod’s controls and activated its engines.

Roaring with effort, the pod lifted off from the hall, pushing into the sky towards Sunrider’s waiting hanger bay.

******

Kneeling, Sola’s short white hair whipped in the high wind as she crouched atop Sunrider’s hull.  The entire Star Palace laid out in front of her as she looked out at the ruined building through a sniper’s scope.  Numbers and reading scrolled wildly along the rifle’s scope as it attempted to help her compensate for the tricky crosswinds.  Taking a deep breath, Sola steadied the high powered sniper rifle against her body, cradling it like a child as she watched Arcadius standing obligingly out of cover, screaming orders at his subordinates.

“Sola, take the shot,” ordered Ava through her earpiece.

“Understood.”

With a sharp crack, Sola’s rifle fired, its round tearing straight through Arcadius’s forehead.

Nothing happened.  Incredulously, Sola fired twice more, once more in the head, one shot to the chest.  The chest shot connected with something solid, blasting a tiny, floating device out of the air and causing Arcadius’s avatar to distort and disappear.

“Negative hit!” Ava cried over the communications channel.  “Sola’s shot was perfectly on target, but… it’s a hologram!  Arcadius was never even in the wedding hall!”

“Damn!  All forces, retreat, Sola, get to the Seraphim!  We’ve got what we came here for,” ordered Kayto.

******

The ride back to Sunrider was almost as bad as the ride down, minus the end for end flipping.  Still, when the pod finally settled into a docking berth, steaming and beat up from the excursion outside, its occupants piled out with relief.

“CIC!  What’s the situation?” asked Kayto as he helped Asaga out of the pod, her balance thrown by the outrageous heels she wore.

“Captain!  Sensors are lit up like an Elder Day Tree up here; we’ve got two hundred PACT ships incoming on various intercept vectors!” reported one of the CIC crew.

“Engines all ahead full!  Break atmosphere and head towards the first moon.  Prepare to launch Ryders as soon as we clear atmosphere,” ordered Kayto.

“Aye, Sir!” answered the crewman, the Sunrider’s decks shuddering as her engines answered.

Turning back to Asaga, Kayto felt a thoroughly unexpected sting on his cheek as she slapped him.  “Wha-?” Kayto reeled for a moment before Asaga pulled him into a deep hug, one arm around his back and one hand holding the side of his head against her shoulder.

“Captain…”

“Umm…” Kayto gave an awkward smile as he drew back, cheek still smarting.  “Welcome back?.”

“You came after me…” Asaga sounded close to tears, conflict in her eyes, “Even though I told you not to…”

“You’re a member of my crew,” Kayto said firmly.  “No one gets left behind, ever.  Now listen, we’re not out of this pickle yet.  Black Jack’s all warmed up and I need you out there ASAP, so get out of that outfit and into a Ryder suit.  The rest of the wing’s waiting for you.”

Asaga’s face broke into a smile, her first in days.  Despite the odds, despite her protest, Kayto had brought the Sunrider after her, not even six hundred PACT ships able to keep his resolve at bay.  Deep down, she had always known he would do something like that and, if she was honest with herself, had hoped for the rescue against everything else.  As she returned his serious gaze, Asaga felt something blossom in her chest, a sensation of warmth and strength.  The way he looked at her, she was no longer the Princess of Ryuvia, she was Asaga Oakrun, pilot of the Black Jack and crew of the Sunrider.

Eyes swimming with emotion, Asaga brought her hand up in a trembling salute.  “Asaga Oakrun, returning to duty, Sir!”

Kayto nodded, turning to return to the CIC with Ava.  “Stay safe out there, Asaga.”

******

Back in the ruined reception hall of the Star Palace, Fontana and Arcadius watched as the bright blue engines of the retreating Sunrider faded into the distance.  Cullen continued to whimper pathetically on the ground, but neither seemed particularly concerned.

“She’s making for the first moon,” deduced Fontana as he eyed a miniature tactical uplink on his wrist.  “All forces are scrambling to intercept.  My Veniczar, shall I return to orbit and coordinate our response?”

Arcadius clenched his fists in anger, his blank eyes staring up at the spot where Sunrider disappeared from view.  “We will not be humiliated at our own wedding.  We shall slaughter them all, but the Princess… we shall have her taken alive.  Death would be too lenient a sentence after the humiliation she caused us today.  Still, it matters not.  Her life is immaterial; Ryuvia is ours.  We shall have the power to rule the galaxy as the Ancient Ryuvians did soon enough, with or without her.  Fontana, see to the subjugation of Ryuvia.  I shall take personal command of our forces in orbit.  And see to your… colleague.”

“Yes, Veniczar.”  Fontana bowed as Arcadius’s hologram vanished, leaving only a floating projector which flickered and dropped dead onto the floor amidst the shattered glass and marble.  “This is Fontana.  Ready my shuttle and get a medic team to my location after they’re done treating the critically injured.”  Turning on heel, he swept from the room, longcoat billowing after him.

******

“Captain, multiple PACT signatures from all vectors,” reported Ava grimly as her fingers tapped rapidly over her command station.  “They’re trying to box us in.”

“Hold course,” ordered Kayto.  “Lay in to slingshot around that moon; we’ll use it to cut off the PACT fleet on our port side.  All we need to do is punch a hole through their defenses and get to clear space for an emergency warp.  Launch our Ryder wing.”

“Aye, Sir!  All hands, prepare for emergency maneuvers!”  Ava ordered.  “Ryders launching.  Captain, entering firing range with PACT intercept forces.  On screen now.”

The forward screen switched views to show the lead PACT forces.  Two battleships, a cruiser, two missile frigates, and a slew of PACT Ryders faced them, trying to block Sunrider’s escape.

“Damn…” Kayto muttered.  He had hoped Sunrider’s unexpected tactics would buy them more time and confusion within the PACT fleet, but it seemed someone more competent than Cullen had taken command.

The two battleships were some of the PACT Navy’s most intimidating warships.  Larger than the Sunrider, PACT battleships neared seven hundred meters in length, mounting kinetic projectile guns that rivaled the Sunrider’s Saviors in terms of sheer power.  Along their lateral sides, the PACT battleships were aglow with charged laser cannons, ready to gut any ship they found range on.  PACT battleships were incapable of launching their own Ryder wings, having given up the hanger space to add additional missile pods to their armament.  Truly long-range superiority fighters, PACT battleships were known for their ability to fire endless salvos of missiles as they closed the gap with enemies to bring their kinetic cannons to bear.  On top of that, PACT battleships were sheathed with the heaviest armor the PACT had available to their starship foundries and equipped the latest in shielding technology, giving them almost unsurpassed defense and offense among the PACT warships.

Fortunately, if they had one disadvantage, they were slow and ungainly.  As the two battleships that formed the core of the PACT battlegroup were still out of weapons range, Sunrider had a little time to handle some of the escort ships before they would need to worry about the battleships.  For the moment, the PACT missile frigates and bomber Ryders represented priority targets for the Sunrider and her Ryder wing, given their long range firing capabilities, but relative vulnerability.  “Sola, just how far can your weapon shoot?” asked Kayto over the comms.

“Seraphim’s weapons are not affected by distance the same way as yours, Captain,” answered Sola cryptically.  “Just give me a target.”

“That missile frigate dead ahead, we need it taken care of,” said Kayto.  “Can you do that?”

“Easily.”  Sola’s voice took on a cold, brittle quality.  “Target locked, firing.”

Seraphim’s unusual weapon glowed bright blue, almost white, for a moment before discharging a slug of coherent light.  Through some quick of physics the Ancient Ryuvians had discovered, the wave-particle duality of light could be manipulated to their advantage, giving Sola’s weapon the pinpoint precision of a laser weapon combined with the devastating damage potential of a kinetic projectile, all at the speed of light.  The result was impressive, to say the least.  Sola’s laser slug impacted the hapless PACT missile frigate, tearing through its decks almost as effectively as a full Savior salvo.  On fire and chaining with internal explosions, the missile frigate struggled to hold itself together.

“I got this,” said Icari, pulling to the head of the Ryder formation and emptying Phoenix’s autocannons into the stricken craft.  Even though the range was extreme, the few slugs that landed were sufficient to compromise what was left of the ship’s hull integrity, causing what few lights remained active to flicker off, leaving the ship to drift dead.

“Bring the Sunrider forward and cover the Phoenix,” ordered Kayto as Sunrider maneuvered to cover Pheonix within its flak range.  “Fire Saviors at lead PACT cruiser.”

“Saviors firing,” answered Ava as the massive gun reports shook Sunrider’s CIC.  “Direct hit!”

On screen, the PACT cruiser vented atmosphere and fire from multiple hull breaches, but continued to advance, having had enough armor and redundancy to withstand the salvo without taking a fatal hit.

“Captain,” Chigara reported in, “Liberty and Bianca are engaging electronic warfare suites; shutting down PACT battleship and corrupting targeting systems.”

“Copy that, all Ryders, stay frosty, the PACT’s entering firing range,” warned Kayto.

Predictably, the PACT fleet opened fire, sending salvo after salvo of missiles in Sunrider’s direction.  Unexpectedly, however, the missiles were targeted at the Seraphim.  Perhaps sensing the Ryder’s deadly potential to pick off their advancing forces one at a time or intimidated by the unknown weapon, both PACT bombers and missile frigates as well as the PACT battleship, targeted Sola.

“Emergency maneuvers,” Sola’s deadpan voice announced as the Seraphim attempted to shake the missiles, her Ryder’s movements fluid and graceful.  Sunrider and Phoenix added what flak coverage they could, but the sheer number of missiles was overwhelming.  Impacting one after another, the missiles scored several direct hits on the Seraphim, burning holes into its armor and crippling its systems.

“Seraphim, functionality low.  Multiple systems compromised,” Sola’s voice betrayed neither strain nor panic as her Ryder reeled from the impacts.

“Liberty, move to assist!” ordered Kayto, deciding to take the risk to allow one of the battleships to rejoin the fight in order to keep Sola’s Ryder in play.

“Roger that, Captain,” Chigara answered, deploying Liberty’s repair drones.

The drones streaked towards the Seraphim, providing thrust assist and diving straight into the missile craters to perform repairs on the compromised systems.

“Functionality returning,” said Sola over the comms, mildly impressed that Chigara’s engineering abilities could even extend to repair of an Ancient Ryuvian Ryder.  “You may withdraw your drones; I fight alone.”

“Icari!  Watch your tail!” Ava barked as four PACT infantry Ryders fell into formation behind the Phoenix.  Lasers knifed towards Icari’s Ryder as the PACT Ryders opened fire with support from their damaged cruiser.  The Phoenix dodged and weaved, but a single laser clipped one of its delicate “wings,” hindering its ability to dodge.

“D-damn it!” shouted Icari as she flipped several switches and wrenched the Phoenix’s controls.  Engines flaring, the Phoenix suddenly reversed thrust, nimbly falling through the pursuing Ryder line and allowing them to pass to the front.  “You’ll pay for that!”

Before the PACT Ryder pilots even had a chance to turn, Phoenix opened fire with its autocannons, shredding into the thinly armored Ryders’ rears.

“Black Jack, I’ve got your back, Icari,” announced Asaga, also dumping her fire into the line of Ryders in a deadly cross fire.  Try as they might, the PACT infantry Ryders were unable to dodge the well aimed shots, sustaining multiple hits and detonating as armor piercing rounds tore into their fusion reactor cores.

“Sunrider, also moving to assist, tighten those flak fields people!” ordered Kayto as the Sunrider closed formation with the Black Jack and Phoenix to form overlapping fields of fire.  Assault guns blazing, Sunrider intercepted and dispatched the remaining Ryders, completely neutralizing the first PACT Ryder wing.

“Incoming missiles, Captain,” warned Ava as the PACT ships took advantage of the distraction to reload and launch missiles once again.  “They’re targeting the Phoenix!”

Dozens of missiles homed in on Icari’s damaged Ryder, their white vapor trails tracking across space as she dodged and weaved between them, struggling to overcome the damage to her maneuvering systems.  Sunrider’s targeting computers coordinated with Black Jack and Phoenix’s automated flak defenses, catching the missiles in a series of cross fire patterns that cut their numbers down to size.  Even so, two missiles passed through their defenses and struck the Phoenix, blowing large holes into its frame.

Dozens of warning lights flashed on in Icari’s cockpit and an alarm started screaming.

“Oh shit!” Icari scrambled, grabbing the helmet between her legs and jamming it on, clicking its seal.

“Atmospheric integrity compromised,” reported the Phoenix’s computer in a deadpan voice.

A moment later, the cockpit hissed white as the entire Ryder depressurized.

“-nix… come in.  Phoenix, do you read?”  Kayto’s garbled voice came in over the damaged communications system, voice only.

“Captain, is that you?” Icari asked hopefully, fingers flying over Phoenix’s controls to see if she could bypass any of the damage.

“Icari!” Kayto’s voice sounded relieved.  “We’re reading critical damage to your frame, are you alright?”

Icari blushed at the tone of concern, suddenly glad that the Phoenix no longer retained enough communication bandwidth to transmit her image.  “I-I’m fine!  T-this is all your fault, Captain!”

“Can you make it back to the Sunrider on your own?” asked Ava.

“What!?” Icari slammed her console, venting her irritation.  Everything about the situation was rotten.  From her inability to dodge the lasers and missiles, to the legion of PACT ships in front of them, to Kayto’s concern over her.  Especially Kayto’s concern.  “I-I’m fine!  I can still do this, I don’t need help!”

“Captain.”  Ava arched her eyebrow at him, turning a pulsing red monitor to show him the extent of Phoenix’s damage.

“Liberty, move to assist Phoenix.  Task your drones to repairing her Ryder and have them provide additional thrust to compensate for the damaged maneuvering systems,” ordered Kayto.

Liberty’s repair drones detached from Chigara’s Ryder once again, zooming towards the crippled Phoenix.

In Icari’s cockpit, the red lights shut off, one by one and the warning klaxon ceased as Chigara’s drones got to work.  Even the atmosphere came hissing back as one of the drones sealed her cockpit and pressurized the cabin; Icari kept her helmet on, just in case the millimeter of epoxy the drones laid down came loose from one of her stunts.

“Phoenix, back in the game,” grumbled Icari, still nettled that she required the assist in the first place.  “Why aren’t those drones getting off my back?”

“They’ll provide additional thrust to make up for some of the damage,” answered Chigara.  “I’m slaving them to your piloting controls now.”

“I don’t-”

“Stow it, Icari,” ordered Kayto.  “Save your pride for after the fight.  We’ve got work to do.”  Cutting the comms, Kayto turned to Ava.  “Let’s pay them back for that round.”

“Yes, Captain.”  Ava tapped orders into her tactical screen.  “All Saviors fire!  Target missile cruiser with one salvo and the lead battleship with our other.  Ryders, take the PACT wing down.”

Sunrider’s Saviors belched fire, swatting aside the PACT missile frigate with almost insulting ease and scoring a series of direct hits on the PACT battleship.  Phoenix, assisted by Chigara’s drones, and Black Jack gunned forward, dodging laser fire and riddling the remaining PACT Ryders with autocannon rounds.  Drawing her anti-Ryder blades, Icari initiated Phoenix’s close quarters combat protocols, cutting down a PACT bomber as she and Asaga chased down and destroyed the remaining Ryders.

The PACT battleship loomed on the main screen as Sunrider drew in close, unleashing salvo after salvo of Savior rounds into her hull.  The PACT battleship attempted to respond, but Chigara had jammed its guns, leaving the ship defenseless as Sunride pounded into her hull.  After taking a third, final salvo head on, the massive PACT battleship broke along its spine, unable to handle the hull stress.  Slowly, the ship bent, dozens of internal fires distorting its superstructure like wax.  Explosions rocked along its seven hundred meter length, turning the entire ship into a blazing skeleton, literally cooking its insides and crew within its heavy armor.

“Captain!  Additional PACT reinforcements detected!  Warp signatures at ten and two o’clock!” shouted Ava, leaving no time to celebrate their victory over the massive PACT warship.

“Ryders, intercept targets,” ordered Kayto, rapidly tapping coordinates into his tactical station, designating the nearest reinforcement group, a missile frigate and two Ryders, for Sunrider’s Ryder wing.

“Damn it, Captain!  I’m a doctor!” squealed Claude as she thumbed Bianca’s weapons controls, discharging her scattergun straight into the chest of an oncoming PACT Ryder.  The PACT Ryder’s chest compartment blew open in an obscene recreation of human anatomy; atmosphere, armored plating, and internal machinery tearing out of a gaping wound.

“Wow… Claude scored a kill?” Asaga asked, incredulous.  Shaking her head, Asaga grinned; the stakes were rising.  “Black Jack, weapons free, targeting PACT missile boat!”

Black Jack’s shoulder lasers traced harsh lines across the sky as they lanced towards the PACT missile frigate that just dropped out of warp.  The lasers flickered through the ship’s thin hull, cutting deep into the ship.  Moments later, autocannon slugs from the Black Jack finished the job, smashing the boat to pieces before it had a chance to launch its payload.

Not a moment later, one of Sola’s unusual kinetic slugs soared over Black Jack’s shoulder, missing by mere centimeters, and nailing a PACT Ryder through the explosion.

“Hey, watch it!” shouted Asaga, startled as the shot barely grazed her Ryder, setting off dozens of Black Jack’s alarms in consternation.

“This is Sola.  Enemy craft down,” Sola said, utterly nonplussed by Asaga’s irritation.

“Captain, it’s getting crowded up here,” warned Ava.  “We need to get out of here before the rest of the PACT fleet closes distance.”

Kayto nodded.  However many kills Sunrider and her Ryders scored was immaterial if she could not escape.  Support Ryders in tow, Sunrider pushed forward, bulling towards the final PACT battleship that stood between it and the moon, leaving the softer targets for her Ryder wing.  “Target the last battleship, fire Saviors as fast as we can.”

“Aye, Captain,” Ava answered as Sunrider’s guns lashed out.

Slug after slug landed on the battleship as Sunrider and the PACT ship closed distance to nearly suicidal range.  Firing almost point blank, Sunrider’s Saviors glowed cherry red as they fired at maximum capacity, gouging devastating holes into the enemy armor.  Once again, Chigara’s hacking of the enemy systems provided the edge Sunrider needed as the PACT battleship was crippled, unable to retaliate as Sunrider mercilessly fired into her side as she passed.

The PACT cruisers from the reinforcement teams closed, attempting to provide assistance to the crippled battleship, but their range was still too extreme, scoring only superficial hits on Sunrider’s armor with their laser weapons.

Armored plating blasted outwards as Sunrider’s kinetic slugs tore through the battleship’s hull, smashing their way through multiple decks.  Kayto could almost make out crew among the debris as atmosphere vented from the devastating rends, a maelstrom of explosively decompressing air that dragged everything not nailed down along with it as it blasted into the depths of space.  Undoubtedly, each slug his ship fired killed dozens of PACT crewmen, from the direct impact, loss of atmosphere, or fires they started; for a moment, Kayto felt a pang of regret.  No matter their ideological differences, those were still human beings he condemned to a painful, fearful death, men and women who, most likely, considered each other family the same way he thought of his own crew.

Kayto clenched his fist and force himself to watch as his handiwork unfolded.  On screen, the final PACT battleship breathed its last, its systems losing all power with a final flicker.  For a moment, the ship drifted silently, pockmarked with hull breaches, before its fusion reactor, no longer restrained to a careful burn, blossomed into a brilliant fireball burned through the ship.  Without a backwards look, Sunrider continued on her course, leaving the burning skeleton of the ship in her wake.

“Ryders, form up,” ordered Kayto, throat dry.  “Ava, get our warp drive spooled up.  Slingshot us around that moon so close that we graze the sand!”

Additional PACT ships dropped out of warp, coming at Sunrider and her Ryders from the flanks as she desperately plunged towards Ryuvia’s first moon.  Falling into formation, Black Jack and Phoenix each took one of Sunrider’s flanks, laying down suppression fire to buy time.  Liberty, Seraphim, and Bianca all abandoned their tasks, committing their full reactor output to thrust as they raced to catch up with Sunrider.

Engines heaving, Sunrider entered into a tight arc around the moon, close enough so that her rear engine thrust kicked up a dust trail kilometers long as she flashed over the moon’s surface.  Behind her, the Ryders followed suit, each banking over the moon’s surface close enough to scrape the rims off craters as they passed.

“Engines reaching their limit, Captain!  Inertial dampeners are barely compensating!” cried Ava as Sunrider’s entire hull groaned with the strain of accelerating in gravity.

“Vent all engine coolant, reserve pumps at maximum!  Buy us a few seconds!  All Ryders, initiate emergency combat landings!” ordered Kayto, as he keyed the controls to open Sunrider’s hanger bay.

Less than half a kilometer off the surface of the moon, Sunrider’s Ryder bay cracked open.  Dust clouds billowed in the uneven wake of the starship and ancient rocks blasted upwards, pelting and dimpling the Sunrider’s hull.  Running lights activated, signaling safe haven in the dust storm to the Ryders flying behind Sunrider.

The three support Ryders burned hard as they raced for the open bay, battling their way through the hailstorm of dust and rock and landing in a shower of sparks as magnetic tethers caught them and jerked them to a halt.  No sooner had they entered, Black Jack and Phoenix peeled off of their vectors, falling behind Sunrider for a moment before rocketing into her bay as well.

“All Ryders accounted for, Captain!” called out Ava, a trickle of sweat on her brow.  “Emergency warp spooled up to 90 percent escape velocity!”

Kayto eyed the oncoming PACT ships, heart in his throat.  Their weapons charged and his tactical screen screamed at him as multiple thermal spikes were detected.

“95 Percent!”

“All hands, brace for emergency warp!” Kayto shouted as nearly a hundred missiles streaked towards Sunrider’s hull.  Laser light flickered around her, scoring hits along her hull and gouging new craters into the moon’s surface; multiple fireballs burst all around them as the Sunrider hurtled over the moon’s horizon and slingshot onto the far side of the moon, buying itself the benefit of cover from the PACT fleet for a few seconds.

“Captain!” Ava cried as the forward monitor painted a new contact, hidden behind the shadow of the moon.

“The Legion…” breathed Kayto.  “Damn it, they were waiting for us on the other side!”

Kayto found himself staring down the barrel of the Legion’s massive laser cannon once again as Sunrider flew straight for the waiting super-dreadnought.  How many lives had that cannon claimed since he had last seen it wipe out Cera City, he wondered.  As the Legion’s main cannon glowed, rippling with energy, Kayto hit a series of emergency orders into his tactical screen.  “ALL HANDS, BRACE FOR HARD TO PORT!” he barked, finalizing the commands.

Along Sunrider’s hull, volatile chemicals injected into specially designed hard points along the ship’s hull, reacting violently in what was essentially a controlled explosion.  Multiple armored plates blasted outwards like bullets as Sunrider used her chemical sidekick to literally blast her to port and off the Legion’s line of fire.

Alarms shrieked as the lights in the CIC flickered on and off.  The entire ship groaned and creaked with the strain.  Shocking red drowned out the main screen as Legion’s laser fire missed by mere millimeters; hull sensors screamed at the unacceptable heat stress suddenly detected on Sunrider’s starport side.

“All safeties exceeded!  Our hull can’t take this stress!” cried Ava as Sunrider slewed to port and Legion desperately tried to realign the laser.  “Warp preparations complete!”

“WARP, WARP!” shouted Kayto.

With one final groan, the entire ship suddenly ceased shaking, becoming eerily smooth as though the entire battle hand never happened.  The burning red fading from the main screen as the darkness of warp space closed in and Sunrider’s sensor alarms faded into dead quiet.

“Stand down Red Alert,” said Kayto finally, swallowing hard and mopping his brow.

The crew cheered as the red lighting disappeared in the CIC, jubilant and giddy with the mad rush of emotions and hormones that came with such a close brush with death.

“Wow… that was one Hell of a wedding…”  Kayto grinned at Ava like a loon.

Ava shook her head, but a radiant glimmer in her eyes gave her away all the same.  “Unbelievable… That was… quite the rescue, Captain.  I… can’t believe we’re still alive…”

“It’s thanks to you, Ava,” Kayto said honestly.  “You came up with our battle strategy; I knew I could count on you.”

“Th-thank you, Sir!” Ava gave him a stiff salute.  “We’ll be entering Alliance Space once we drop out of warp.  Where shall I set our coordinates?”

“Lay in for the nearest friendly port,” Kayto sighed wearily, what was left of his energy draining out of him.  “Call ahead, let them know to expect us for resupply and repair.  We’ve had enough adventure today, wouldn’t you say?”

“Yes Sir.” Ava agreed wholeheartedly.  “Course set for Far Port.  ETA, 18 hours.”

CHAPTER 16>>>>