Chapter 17- Kryska

Kayto stood with Ava on the catwalk above Sunrider’s hanger deck as a lone Ryder drifted into the hanger, retrothrusters glowing as it hovered above the deck surrounded by invisible magnetic tethers that guided it to a waiting cradle.  The Ryder was painted with the Alliance’s colors; green and white, and its base model appeared to be a standard Alliance Ryder frame, bulky and square like the rest of their navy.  What set the current Ryder apart from any other Alliance Ryder he had ever seen, however, were the thick, articulated plates of armor that encased the Ryder’s frame; it almost looked as though the Ryder itself wore a secondary armored suit over itself, never mind the full body shield mounted on one of its armatures.  Along the juggernaut’s back, similar to the Black Jack’s laser armaments, four double barreled Gauss cannons pointed proudly above the Ryder’s head at a forty-five degree angle, fed by a large reserve pack of ammunition on the Ryder’s back.  Combined with the missile pods that bulged slightly from under the heavy plating, nothing about the Ryder was subtle, although Kayto had to admit he was glad the beast of a Ryder was on their side.“Are you sure this is wise, Captain?” asked Ava, standing stiffly at his side and watching the Ryder dock with narrowed eyes.  “I’m not entirely certain the crew will be comfortable with foreign military officers serving aboard Sunrider.”“We need all the help we can get,” said Kayto, although truth be told he also harbored some apprehensions about his decision to allow Alliance personnel aboard.  “Given that we’ll be working closely with the Alliance, maybe she’ll be an asset.  We’ll just have to wait and see.”“Hmph,” Ava made an unhappy sound, but saw no reason to disagree further.“Let’s not let our guard all the way down though.  I want a full background check on her and keep an eye on her for now.  Nothing overt; just a precaution.  Consider it probation until we’re sure she’ll fit in with the crew,” ordered Kayto.

“Aye, Captain, gladly,” agreed Ava, the relief in her voice obvious.

It didn’t take long for the Ryder’s pilot to dock and disembark, emerging from bay 06’s lift.  Clad in jade Ryder armor, the pilot was as tall as Kayto, her dark blue hair cut in a short, boyish bob cut.  “Lieutenant Kryska Stares, reporting for duty, Sir!” Crisply saluting both Ava and Kayto, Kryska’s honey eyes stared straight ahead, her back straight as a slide rule.

“At ease, Lieutenant,” Kayto said after returning the salute.  “I’m Captain Kayto Shields, this is my First Officer, Ava Crescentia.  Welcome aboard the Sunrider.”

“My pleasure, Sir!” Kryska put her hand down, but otherwise did not relax her stance a single millimeter.  “I have orders directly from the Admiral, himself, to serve with your crew and function as an Alliance Liaison Officer aboard this ship.  I look forward to working with you, Sirs!”

Although Kayto frowned slightly at the woman’s rigid adherence to military propriety, Ava looked at the Alliance officer with obvious approval, her professionalism endearing her somewhat despite Ava’s previous reservations.  “Tell me about yourself, Lieutenant,” asked Kayto as he gestured for the three of them to walk, hoping to cut some of the ice.

“Rank: Lieutenant, First Class.  Twenty two standard years of age.  Previous service: Commander of Air Group aboard Alliance carrier Montesquieu.  Hometown: New Seattle, Luna.”  Kryska rattled off her personal resume with robotic precision and practice.

“An Alliance CAG?” Ava’s eyebrows arched.  “An unusual choice for a Liaison Officer, particularly aboard a neutral warship.”

“I go wherever my duties require me to, Ma’am,” answered Kryska politely.  “I am not in the habit of questioning my deployment orders.”

“You’ve got one hell of a Ryder,” observed Kayto.  “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it.”

“Thank you, Sir!” Kryska’s eyes shone with pride.  “Paladin’s a modified Alliance GFR- Heavy.  I’ve reviewed your current Ryder complement’s dossiers and believe you will find the Paladin’s addition to be of benefit.”

“Paladin, huh?” Kayto offered a small smile.  “That would explain the armor.”

“Yes, Sir!”  Kryska nodded.  “Paladin uses Grade S starship armor reinforced with hyperdiamond tri-weave.  It’s virtually immune to all Ryder small arms fire and even capital ship flak; even lasers will barely do more than a scratch.  I’ve never had the pleasure, but our engineers assure me that Paladin could go toe-to-toe against a cruiser class ship on its own and win.”

“Impressive,” remarked Kayto.  “I’m guessing not all Alliance Ryders are that tough though.”

“No, Sir,” Kryska sounded slightly sheepish.  “Paladin’s an experimental model; extremely limited and custom production runs.  It’s simply not economically viable to produce models like this en masse, even for the Alliance.  I am privileged to have been given the opportunity to serve as its pilot.”

“Tell me about those guns; they look like custom jobs too.”

“Yes, Sir,” Kryska sounded slightly more hesitant.  “I’m afraid I can’t go into detail for security reasons, but what I can say is that Paladin’s eight Gauss cannons can accelerate kinetic slugs to approximately two point five percent the speed of light.”

Kayto whistled; the Paladin’s slugs flew even faster than the Saviors’.  “Probably to make up for the reduced mass of your projectiles right?”

“Correct,” Kryska nodded again.  “But you’d be surprised.  Paladin’s slugs have a black ore core; they’re about five times heavier than any conventional slug of the same caliber.  Put together, Paladin’s cannons can dish out about the same damage as any capital ship’s deck guns.”

“Limited production as well, I take it.”  Kayto was impressed; black ore was hugely expensive to mine and work with, never mind to use as disposable projectiles.

“Yes, Sir,” answered Kryska.  “But do not worry; I have the Admiral’s assurances that the Alliance will be able to keep Paladin’s ammunition stocked aboard the Sunrider whenever you make port.”

“All right,” Kayto said as the three of them entered the lift at the end of the catwalk, rising up to Sunrider’s main deck.  “Welcome aboard again, Kryska.  Ava will get you uniforms and the standard crew kit and help you to settle into your new pilot quarters.  You’re crew now, so make yourself at home,” he said as he stepped off on deck 1, leaving Ava and Kryska to go continue to deck 0.

“Thank you, Sir!” Kryska saluted again as the doors closed.

******

“Captain, a word please,” Ava interrupted Kayto as he studied a holographic projection of Far Port and the Alliance Second Fleet holding orbit above the world.

“Ava,” Kayto gratefully seized on the distraction; thus far, every combat projection and simulation he ran through the system had yielded disastrous results.

“I think you should take a look at this,” Ava passed him her holo which displayed Kryska’s picture along with her service record.  Kayto scrutinized the record, which seemed to corroborate everything Kryska had told them thus far.

“I don’t-”

“Look at the dates she served aboard the Montesquieu,” Ava walked to Kayto’s side and tapped the relevant line on the service record.  “I double checked the dates and there appears to be a discrepancy: her service record shows that she started her service two days before the ship was officially commissioned.  After what happened with Claude, I decided to have Chigara give the service record a look; according to her, the file’s code shows traces of a digital wipe.  What we’re reading now is all new data, written over what her service record previously said.  More than that, Chigara did some data mining; there are a number of similar discrepancies with any Alliance reports referencing the Montesquieu; as far as Chigara can tell, we can’t even be sure the ship exists.”

“That’s… interesting,” muttered Kayto, eyeing Kryska’s digital portrait critically.

“More than interesting,” Ava frowned.  “An ace pilot with fake credentials and a service record referencing a ship that doesn’t even exist?  Captain, someone went through a lot of trouble to alter the lieutenant’s service record, someone like Alliance Spec Ops.”

“So she’s a spy…” Kayto mused on the thought for a moment before shrugging and passing the holo back to Ava.  “Well I can’t say I’m entirely surprised.  It looks like the Admiral and the Alliance trust us about as much as we trust them.”

“Would you like us to keep a closer eye on her?” asked Ava.  “I could assign some of the marines to tail her, at a distance, of course.”

Kayto thought for a minute.  “No,” he finally said.  “We’ve got nothing to hide; chances are she’s just here to keep an eye on us anyways.  Give her normal security privileges; we’re going to have to learn to trust each other sooner or later.  It’s up to us to make the first move.”

“Hmph,” Ava looked dissatisfied.  “Very well, Captain, if you say so.  I’ll refrain from any other precautions than bugging her room.”

“What part of normal security privileges is a bugged room?” demanded Kayto.  “Do you have bugs in my room or anyone else’s?”

Ava merely crossed her arms, unimpressed.

“You know what, forget I asked,” Kayto sighed deeply.  “I’d rather not know.”  Turning away from the hologram of Far Port, he suddenly realized his head was pounding; after several hours of banging his head against the insurmountable problem of defending Far Port, it wasn’t surprising.  Leaving the CIC, he made for Sunrider’s mess hall, intent on getting a cup of coffee.

******

“Oh, it’s the Capt’n!” Asaga said cheerily to Chigara, waving Kayto over.  “Capt’n, we’re over here!”

Kayto walked over to the table where Chigara and Asaga were having dinner, collapsing into the seat next to Chigara heavily.

“Good evening, Captain,” Chigara said warmly, giving him a glowing smile.

Kayto sighed deeply, doing his best to look confident.  “We’ve got a big fight coming up; how are you two holding up?”

“Don’t worry ’bout a thing!” Asaga said loudly, slamming the table with an open palm.  “Chigara and I got this; we’ll do our best!”

Kayto nodded encouragingly.  He had little doubt that Asaga would handle her nerves with her usual bravado, but Chigara had him worried.  The petite woman poked listlessly at her dinner, a light salad and piece of bread next to Asaga’s mountain of food.  “Chigara?” Kayto asked gently.  “Are you doing alright?”

“Oh, uhh…” Chigara smiled nervously, dropping her utensils and wringing her hands.  “Well… it’s a little hard digesting because I’m so nervous… but I think I’ll be alright.”

“C’mon Chigara!” Asaga brandished a pair of chopsticks at her demure partner.  “Y’gotta eat lots before battle or you’ll run out of energy!  We’re not leaving until you get seconds!”

As Chigara turned pale at the very thought, Kayto threw a protective arm around Chigara’s shoulders, causing her to jump and blush.  “Hey, let her breathe.  Not everyone’s as macho as you, Asaga.”

“Hwaah!  Nom nom nom,” Asaga dived headfirst into a bowl of udon, slurping her noodles loudly and splashing the other two with flecks of soup.  Dropping his hand from Chigara’s shoulders, he accepted the napkin she offered him.

“I’m sorry, Captain,” Chigara looked down at her food unhappily, barely audible over the loud sounds of Asaga’s chomping.  “Truth be told… I haven’t slept well either since we left Ryuvia.  I… It was really frightening seeing the Veniczar in person… I… sometimes I still hear his voice, ringing in my dreams.”

“Ah, don’t worry ’bout it!” Asaga said before Kayto could think of anything comforting to offer Chigara, swallowing an impressive mouthful of noodles without chewing.  “He’s nothin’ to be scared of, we’ll take him down together, Chigara!”

“Who do you think he is behind the mask?” asked Chigara nervously, clearly not comforted by Asaga’s bravado.

“An ugly, shrimpy toad?” Asaga poked through her soup, hoping to find more noodles but coming up with nothing.  Sighing, she turned a shade more serious.  “He’s the leader of the PACT revolution, right?  The man without an identity.  The People’s savior against the decadence and corruption of the New Empire.  Everyone and no one at the same time.  But…” Asaga leaned in, her face taking on a conspiratorial grin as though she were telling a ghost story.  “Some of my father’s advisors were saying that he might not even be the same man who led the Revolution.  Who can tell under that mask?”

“W-why do you suppose he wears that mask, Captain?” asked Chigara plaintively, shuddering at Asaga’s conspiracy.

“It’s intimidating, isn’t it?” said Kayto with a shrug, sipping his coffee.  More than anything, he wanted to assuage Chigara’s concerns.  Rationalizing and normalizing the mystique behind the Veniczar was something she might appreciate and draw comfort from.  “People fear the unknown.  By wearing that mask, Arcadius can pretend to be something bigger than a mere man.”

“I suppose you’re right, Captain,” said Chigara with some relief.

“More than that, it’s practical,” Kayto continued.  “By hiding his identity, Arcadius can achieve a form of immortality; even if the man dies, the symbol Arcadius became lives on and carries on the PACT’s leadership.”

“It’s a lot better than what the Ryuvians tried,” Asaga butted in with a big smile.  “My ancestors probably squandered enough treasure to buy half the galaxy looking for immortality.  I don’t think their research ever turned up anything, but they came up with some pretty amazing anti-aging skin lotions.  Say…” Asaga’s eyes twinkled nastily.  “You don’t suppose the Commander would be interested in some?  Smooth out those frown lines of hers…”

“SHHH!” Kayto snapped, looking wildly over his shoulders as Chigara and Asaga giggled.  “Do you want to get us all killed before the PACT even shows up?” he hissed.

“Relax, Capt’n!” Asaga cackled wickedly.  “The last of the cream was used up ages ago; Sola might have a bottle packed away somewhere in the Seraphim though…”

Kayto’s bracelet beeped, signaling an incoming call from Ava.  Face paling, he looked up as Chigara and Asaga both squealed, bolting from the table with their trays like schoolgirls.  “Hey, come back!  Don’t-” Kayto sighed in defeat as he answered the page.  “Ava?”

“Captain,” Ava’s tone was humorless, but, thankfully, not angry.  “Situation in the hanger bay, Sir.  Sensors are detecting increased auditory stress levels; there’s some kind of argument going on.”

“Shit,” thought Kayto.  The woman really did have bugs all over the ship.

“Copy that, I’m on my way,” he answered, giving the underside of the mess hall table a quick sweep.  Avoiding the odd looks some of the other crew members were giving him, Kayto hopped up and left for the Ryder hanger, not feeling entirely reassured.

******

Sunrider’s hanger looked busier than ever with half of its Ryder berths now occupied.  As Kayto strode underneath the bright lights of the hanger, looking at each Ryder hanging in its individual cradle, overshadowing him like solemn guardians, he couldn’t help but feel a little more confident.  Unfortunately, the Ryders’ pilots were a little less awe-inspiring; now that there were six of them, friction would undoubtedly erupt with increasing frequency.

“Keep your paws off my Phoenix!” Icari growled, pointing a threatening finger at Kryska, standing between her and the yellow Ryder.  Judging from her posture and facial expression, Kayto would have guessed the Alliance Liaison Officer had asked to eat her first born child.

For her part, Kryska’s features were composed, without a hint of the rising ire her opponent showed her.  Standing stiffly, she gestured at the Phoenix’s schematics on her holo.  “Ms. Isidolde,” Kryska said in a members-of-the-jury voice.  “Your Ryder is in violation of at least fourteen different Alliance class five safety regulations.  The Phoenix is a danger to you and the rest of the crew; I simply cannot allow you to fly with the rest of the squad.”

As Kayto approached, Kryska saluted.  “Captain!”  Icari merely scowled, crossing her arms.

“At ease.  What’s going on here?” asked Kayto, suddenly feeling sympathy for Ava’s day-to-day sufferings caused by other such crew conflicts.

“I was simply explaining to Ms. Isidolde that her Ryder is a potential safety hazard to herself and the crew.  The Phoenix’s continued operation puts the rest of the Ryder wing in significant jeopardy.  I was hoping to take the steps necessary to correcting this problem,” said Kryska as Icari steamed.

“What’s wrong with it?” asked Kayto with a frown; if there was some issue with the Phoenix, this was the first time he was hearing about it.

“Nothing’s wrong with the Phoenix!” snapped Icari, flaring up and glaring at Kryska.  “Soldier boy here’s just feeling snubbed because I cut through all the damned red tape her precious Alliance puts around everything.”

Kryska’s lips tightened and the woman somehow managed to straighten her back even more rigidly.

“Let’s keep the personal insults at a minimum, Icari,” warned Kayto.

Icari rolled her eyes, continuing her side of the story.  “Everyone knows the Solar Congress is in the Karium lobby’s pockets.  No surprise then that all Alliance Ryders and starships have Karium exhaust vents, even when the rest of the galaxy knows Heratium works just as well, is twice as light, and is cheaper!”

“I take it the Phoenix has Heratium exhaust vents,” said Kayto, eyeing the yellow Ryder in its cradle.

“What Ms. Isidolde fails to mention,” said Kryska triumphantly, “Is that Heratium shatters into a thousand razor sharp fragments when subject to explosive force while Karium is rendered into inert filamentous tangles.  Captain; a single hit on the Phoenix could not only take one Ryder out, but any other Ryders flying next to it.  The safety of the rest of the crew is at stake; all for the ego of a single pilot!  If Ms. Isidolde was capable of thinking of anyone but herself, she’d know that accepting a Karium retrofit is the only responsible thing to do.”

“Everyone in the Neutral Rim uses it, you don’t hear any complaints,” Icari said with a dismissive hand gesture.  “I’ve used Heratium all my life and it’s never been a problem.  If it weren’t for the Karium lobby funding all those senator’s re-election campaigns, they’d have never forced through that legislation and gotten away with propaganda to force the galaxy to buy an obsolete and inferior good that should have been kicked off the market decades ago.  If the Solar Alliance actually gave people the freedom to buy what they wanted instead of caving to bullying from special interest groups and cartels, this wouldn’t even be an issue.  Everyone knows Heratium’s lighter, stronger, and more efficient; Phoenix wouldn’t fly the same without it.”

Both pilots turned expectantly to Kayto to arbitrate the argument now that their positions had been stated.  “Lieutenant,” Kayto turned to Kryska.  “I appreciate your concern for the rest of the crew, which are duly noted, but I must remind you that despite your previous service record with the Alliance, on this ship, you are not the CAG; if you have additional concerns, I would advise you to report them to Asaga Oakrun, CAG on the Sunrider rather than confronting your colleagues and insisting on enforcing Alliance policy on a neutral vessel.”

Kryska stared straight ahead, jaw clenched with dissatisfaction as she saluted.  “Yes, Sir!  Thank you, Sir!  But you will excuse me if I steer clear of the Phoenix while it is doing its burn tests on the hanger floor.”

“What you do on your own time is your decision, Lieutenant,” Kayto frowned at the attitude.  “But I expect my Ryder pilots to comply with formation orders when they’re on my clock.  Dismissed.”

With all the precision of a robot, Kryska snapped her hand back to her side mechanically and stalked off to return to her other duties.

“Thanks Captain,” Icari said grudgingly, “I can’t believe that Alliance poster boy’s already trying to bring Alliance rules to a boat she just stepped foot on; that’s some nerve she’s got.  Nice to see her put in her place.”

Kayto sighed, “Play nice, Icari.  We’re all supposed to be on the same team now.”

Icari stuck her tongue out at Kryska’s back.  “She’ll be begging for some Heratium as soon as she sees the Phoenix leaving her Paladin in the dust.”

******

The issue of Phoenix’s use of Heratium continued to weigh unpleasantly on Kayto’s mind through the remainder of the evening, interrupting his already tenuous sleep schedule and rousing him unpleasantly at 0400 the next morning.  After tossing and turning hopelessly for ten minutes, he resigned the struggle and staggered into the shower.  A short while later, Kayto found his feet carrying him to the Ryder hanger with a steaming mug of coffee in hand.

Sipping his beverage and scrutinizing the heat manifolds on the Phoenix’s back from the upper catwalk, a sound from behind him told him he was not alone.

“Oh!  Captain!”

Turning around, Kayto saw Chigara exiting Liberty’s lift.  The woman looked even more tired than before, clearly having stayed up the entire night with Liberty.  Dark bags hung under her eyes and her usually bright affect had given way to a tired, stressed look; even her light lavender hair seemed less well kempt than usual.

“Chigara?” Kayto asked with concern.  “Is everything alright?”

“Fine, fine,” Chigara said vaguely.  “I… couldn’t sleep, so I was doing some fine tuning of Liberty’s systems.”

“Mhm…” Kayto wanted to say something about the importance of rest, but it seemed fairly hypocritical for him to comment on the matter.  “Was there something keeping you up?”

“It’s… the Veniczar’s voice.  I still hear it ringing in my head,” Chigara confided unhappily, coming to his side and looking down at her feet, shuffling uneasily.  “His voice calls out to me, like a siren’s song…”

“Hey, relax,” Kayto patted her arm awkwardly.  “You’ve been under a lot of stress; you’ve got to give yourself a break or we’ll all be in trouble.”

“Oh, Chigara must sound so crazy…” Chigara sighed, stroking the spot on her arm where he had patted her absentmindedly.  “Please forget I said anything.  I’ve actually been thinking a lot about the Diode Catastrophe lately…”

“Do you want to talk about it?” asked Kayto.

Chigara nodded once, looking sheepish.

“Come to my office; we’ll do this properly, sitting, with tea and breakfast,” offered Kayto on a whim.

Chigara broke out with a weak smile, looking a shade more like the Chigara he was accustomed to.

******

“Take your pick,” said Kayto, offering Chigara a wooden box divided into a number of compartments of tea leaves.  “They’re all brews from Cera, some are pretty distinctive.”

Chigara accepted the box, sniffing each brew gingerly before picking one.  “I-I’ll have this one,” she said, pointing at a collection of dark, circular tea leaves.

“Ryuvian Mountain,” said Kayto, smiling.  “I’m told they pick and dry this tea by a shrine in the mountains; you’re almost supposed to be able to taste the fog and dew.”

Chigara turned a little pink as she accepted the cup of tea, sipping gingerly.  As the tea’s warmth trickled into her and warmed the tips of her cold fingers, she felt more at ease than she had in days, settling back on the squishy couch with a small sigh.

“So…” Kayto cast around for a way to start the conversation.  “Tell me about Diode; Galactic History was never one of my strong subjects.”

“Diode was a strange world, even for those of us living on it,” said Chigara, thinking back to her past.  “It orbited a binary system where one of the stars had collapsed into a black hole.  There was nothing remarkable about the planet itself, but the black hole was a point of interest for our research.  Unlike most black holes, Diode’s black hole had practically exhausted its spin; you could almost, just barely, glimpse the singularity.  My father was the head of the Paradox Project; the result of Diode’s research into the black hole.  I was actually born aboard the space station where the Paradox Project was based on.”

“The Paradox Project?” Kayto asked with curiosity

“Diode’s most ambitious scientific project,” said Chigara with a hint of pride.  “It would have been our crowning achievement: the power to control time itself.  Imagine a device that would let you go back in time and redo your life, or bring yourself back after you’d been killed, or edit your enemies out of existence before they were even born.  The possibilities were endless.”

“That sounds like really dangerous technology,” observed Kayto, his head spinning with the implications.  “Something humans probably shouldn’t have.”

“Technology itself is neither good nor bad, dangerous nor benign.  It’s inimical to humanity in of itself.  The greatest good or evil comes from the hands wielding it.  In the right hands, technology to control time could save billions of lives.  More than that, it might have marked the next step in human evolution where we’d be able to exist in and manipulate four dimensions instead of three; war, famine, disease, even conflict as we know it would be mooted by the technology.”

“What happened then?”

“Something went wrong,” Chigara sighed heavily and set her cup down on its saucer with a soft clink, looking miserable.  “We ended up creating a black hole in orbit over Diode that destroyed the research station and most of the planet.  I managed to get to an escape pod in time, but the rest of the team… they were not so lucky.  Both of my parents died that day; as far as I know… I’m the only survivor.”

“I’m sorry,” Kayto patted her knee gently, offering her a box of tissues.  “That must have been terrible for you…”

“It’s OK…” Chigara dabbed at her eyes and blew her nose wetly.  “I made my peace a long time ago.  If it weren’t for the fact that I was right next to the escape pods at the time… But it was terrifying to watch the entire planet crumble behind me as my escape pod struggled to race away from the event horizon… seeing something like that changed my life forever…”

“It’s hard to imagine how something like that could have happened…” Kayto said, a tone of awe entering his voice.  Truly, the level of technological sophistication that Diode had preserved and achieved since the fall of the Holy Ryuvian Empire was almost beyond comprehension.

“We created micro-blackholes all the time with our particle collision experiments, but they evaporate almost as soon as they’re formed.  With all our safeguards, it should have been technically impossible to create a sustaining black hole, much less one of that size and magnitude.  More than that, I’ve run thousands of computer simulations of that experiment.  Every time, things go according to plan and nothing strange happens.  I don’t have any scientific explanation for what happened that day.  But…” Chigara’s voice trailed off.

“But?” prompted Kayto, suspicious that he already knew where her thoughts were headed.

“Well… there’s only one other explanation I can come to.  What happened at Diode that day was an act of sabotage.  Someone on the Paradox Project must have betrayed us, although I can’t imagine why…” Chigara looked glum at the very thought.  “I’ve thought about the experiment for years now; everything was perfect, our calculations and set up were flawless.  This should have never happened…” Chigara sighed and shook her head.  “I’m sorry, Captain.  I’m just rambling now… I bet you think I’m crazy.”

“I don’t think you’re crazy,” Kayto said firmly, doing his best to sound reassuring.  “Keep on looking, Chigara; things like that don’t happen without a reason.  Whether it was a mistake or an act of sabotage, you’ll find evidence one day if you keep digging.”

“Thanks Captain,” Chigara cheered up minutely.  Setting her tea down, Chigara balled her fists in her lap, scrunching her face up in an expression of resolve.  “I… I never want to see the people I care about die around me again!  I’ll do anything I have to do to protect the Sunrider!”

“Of course,” Kayto agreed.  “We’ll do everything in our power to make sure no one around us has to die.  That’s a promise.”

“I’m counting on you, then, Captain,” said Chigara seriously.  Standing, she brushed off the edge of her skirt.  “The tea was wonderful.  I feel better now…  I’m… glad you’re my Captain…”

Kayto smiled as Chigara flushed red.  “I’ll try not to let you down then.”

“You must have so many other matters to attend to,” Chigara looked embarrassed.  “Thank you for taking the time to have me over for tea.”

“Don’t give it another thought,” said Kayto, waving her embarrassment away.  “Use my door anytime you need it, Chigara.”

Chigara beamed and made for the stairway.  “Maybe I will, Captain.”

******

The Alliance worked fast, Kayto had to give them that.  Less than two days after making port at Far Port, Sunrider had been fully repaired by an Alliance dry dock.  On the Admiral’s orders, no expense in terms of credits or manpower had been spared to bring Sunrider back to one hundred percent operational effectiveness.  The Second Fleet, meanwhile, had taken defensive positions in high orbit, carrying out standard patrol and reconnaissance missions while awaiting further orders from the Sunrider.  So far, no sign of the PACT had been received, although Kayto anticipated their attack would come at any time now.

In light of the situation and their dangerously underdeveloped strategy for dealing with a PACT fleet outnumbering them five to one, Kayto had called a meeting with Ava and Kryska to discuss their options for the coming battle.  As he stepped into the CIC, however, Kayto was distracted by a mop of red hair and a distinctive hairband poking out from behind one of unmanned consoles near the main tactical projectors.

“Are you sure we’re allowed to be here?” Chigara’s nervous whisper filtered around the console.

“Shhh!” Asaga said loudly, completely rendering their hiding spot a moot point.  “This is for the sake of ship security, Chigara!  I know what I’m doing!”

“What are you doing?” asked Kayto, sneaking up on them and arching a skeptical eyebrow.

“Yikes!”  Asaga grabbed him by the lapels and hauled him behind the console too.  “Capt’n!  You’ll blow our cover!  We’re keepin’ an eye on the spy.”

“You mean the Lieutenant?” asked Kayto, rolling his eyes, but half-amused all the same.

“Who else?” Asaga shot back.

“You haven’t been spreading rumors about her behind her back have you, Asaga?” asked Kayto in an admonishing tone.

“No way!” Asaga crossed her arms, unrepentant.  “I would never spread salacious rumors and slander like that!  All’s I did was tell some of the crew I was eating with about the Alliance mole, nothing untrue or sinister at all!”

Kayto covered his face in exasperation.  “I don’t see how that’s any different than spreading unfounded rumors… How’d you find out about any of that anyways?”

“Uhh…” Chigara fidgeted nervously, looking guilty enough for the two of them.  “I-I’m sorry, Captain… I let it slip to Asaga about her fabricated service record.”

“You know that everyone can hear and see you right?” Kayto stood up and smoothed the wrinkles in his uniform.  “Look, Ava’s over there scowling at you right now.”

True enough, Ava shot the two Ryder pilots a glowering glare as she analyzed the tactical hologram with Kryska.

“Uck…” Asaga gulped as she took a quick glance over the console.  “We’ve been busted, Chigara!  Scrub the mission!  Abort, abort!”

With that, Asaga did a commando roll from behind the console and dove out of the CIC, startling several crew members as they entered.  From behind, Ava frowned menacingly.

Kayto patted Chigara on the head, who turned crimson and ran out of the CIC after Asaga.  Giving a long suffering sigh, Kayto walked over to join his two officers.  “Sorry about the delay.  Please brief us on the latest situation, Lieutenant.”

“Yes, Sir!” Kryska saluted and called up a series of projections on the tactical hologram.  Far Port zoomed out, the second fleet reduced to a series of green triangles in orbit.  A large red triangle appeared further away.  “As you know, five PACT assault fleets are approaching Far Port.  Based on their origin systems, we believe they will exit warp space somewhere within this region of space between five to twenty thousand kilometers from our current fleet coordinates.  Our mission is to defend against the PACT offensive; we must hold Far Port until Alliance reinforcements arrive.”

Kayto nodded grimly.  “What’s our ETA on the Alliance fleets?”

“It’s hard to predict, Sir; our fleets are pushing their warp engines as hard as they can.  The First Fleet was the closest to us; they’re roughly one to two days out.  The Third, Fourth, and Sixth fleets won’t arrive for at least another three days,” Kryska said uncertainly.

“Hmm… There’s no way the PACT will wait for that long; their intelligence is probably as good as the Alliance’s; they know we’re vulnerable now.  We won’t be able to count on those reinforcements; this is going to be one lopsided battle…” muttered Kayto, rubbing his chin with frustration.  “I’ve run probably over a hundred simulations already; we’re not going to be able to win against the PACT fleets head on.  We need to start thinking about some other options.”

“Captain,” Ava tapped at the controls, causing the holographic layout to change.  The Alliance Second Fleet scattered across the planet, dividing up into twenty smaller wolf packs of cruisers.  “Far Port is a tactically pivotal, but largely uninhabited world.  Our fleet could use the planet for cover and scatter to balance the terms of engagement with hit-and-run tactics.  Without civilian centers to worry about, we can afford to draw out the battle until reinforcements arrive.”

“With respect, Ma’am, such a plan runs a significant risk that the PACT fleet will simply bypass Far Port,” objected Kryska, shaking her head.  “Five major Alliance worlds lay beyond Far Port; Alliance Command has insisted the PACT be contained at Far Port no matter the cost.”

“A fleet that large won’t be able to warp so easily,” insisted Ava.  “We’re talking logistics, warp calculations, and forming up more than five hundred ships.  The coordination involved would be unprecedented.  Either way, we have no choice; putting all our ships together leaves us too vulnerable to a single, overwhelming attack by the PACT; we don’t stand a chance against their fleet under those circumstances.”

Sighing explosively, Kayto chewed his lip.  Neither plan would help them fulfill their mission parameters, there had to be another way…  “Alright, looks like we’ve got our homework cut out for us,” said Kayto to the two women.  “Keep turning those simulations upside down; I’ll do the same.  We’ll figure something out.”

Kryska nodded, saluting again before leaving the CIC to communicate with the rest of the Second Fleet.

“Ava,” Kayto motioned for his First Officer before she could excuse herself.

“Sir?”

“Come up to my quarters for dinner tonight,” offered Kayto.

Ava’s eyes widened.  Crossing her arms, Ava gave him an annoyed look.  “Captain, I hardly think now is an appropriate-”

“Section eleven, article seventeen,” said Kayto, popping a pocket protocol out of his uniform and tossing it to Ava.

Ava snatched the book out of the air, flipping through its pages rapidly.  “The Captain may host senior officers or crew in less formal settings to facilitate crew cohesion or as an informal staff meeting at his/her discretion,” Ava read out loud before frowning at Kayto and handing the book back out to him.  “That seems a little self-serving, doesn’t it, Captain?”

“Not at all!” Kayto held his hands up in defense.  “We’ve got to come up with a plan against the PACT or we’ll all be done for.”

“I suppose…” Ava gave a strange twitch, half-irritated and half-amused.  Brushing a lock of her hair behind one ear, she looked at Kayto sideways with one eye.  “My shift ends at 1900.”

“I’ll see you then,” winked Kayto.

******

Ava dabbed at her lips with her napkin before neatly folding the corner of the white cloth and returning it to her lap.  She had initially been hesitant to accept Kayto’s offer, but now, after dinner, she had to admit, the experience had been good.  Quiet music filtered through hidden speakers in his quarters, just barely loud enough to cover any awkward silences, but fading helpfully into her subconscious whenever the two were talking.  Beside them, a stunning view of sunset over Far Port’s distant, gently curving horizon slowly gave way to the twinkling night sky.  Although neither of them had figured out a solution to the PACT onslaught, somehow, Ava could not quite bring herself to concluding that the entire evening had been a waste of time.

Quietly, Ava contemplated the view on the holoscreen; as peaceful and serene as Far Port was beneath them, the entire illusion would shatter the minute PACT forces dropped out of warp.

Across from her, Kayto sighed loudly, lacing his fingers behind his head and leaning back in his chair.  “The opening battle of the Alliance-PACT war… I never thought it would be us at the front of the entire war.  How did it turn out this way?” wondered Kayto out loud.

“You mean hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned?  Facing a superior force with no reinforcements with orders to hold the line no matter the cost, all for a naive schoolboy cause?” Ava half-scowled, half-smiled.  “Feels like one of the stories we cooked up during summer vacation.”

“I’d thought you’d forgotten about those days,” said Kayto nostalgically, his gaze drifting as he disappeared into their shared childhood memories.

“Not everything,” Ava said quietly, unsure if Kayto heard her.  Feeling a warm prickling sensation on her cheeks, she looked down at her lap, playing with her napkin.

“Ava,” Kayto sounded hesitant.  “Why didn’t you ever return my messages?  You know… after… you left.”

Ava started, looking up into Kayto’s eyes.  Beneath the table, her hands balled into fists around her napkin.  Whenever he looked at her like that; with wide, innocent eyes, she couldn’t help but to feel an uncomfortable, choking sensation rise in her chest.  Damn it; he hadn’t changed a bit since their schooldays.  “I-I was busy…” Ava shifted uneasily and looked away.

“Heh,” Kayto chuckled, more to himself than Ava.  “I figured as much.”  Closing his eyes, he let silence stretch unbearably.

“I moved on,” Ava said finally, her voice taking on a ruthlessness that surprised even her.  “I went to space, you stayed home.  It’s not like it could have lasted forever.”

Kayto tapped the table with his fingers, clearly divided on whether or not to push the subject.  “Nothing’s set in stone unless you let it stay that way.”

Abruptly, Ava stood from the table, pushing her chair out from behind her and setting her napkin down with more force than she meant, rattling the silverware.  “Thank you for the meal, Captain.”  Without looking at him, she turned around, hiding her face.  “I’d better get back to work; and I’m still waiting on the paperwork that I sent to your holo last night.”

Sweeping from Kayto’s cabin, Ava marched back to her own, her brown hair flaring out behind her in her wake, refusing to look backwards.

Nothing’s set in stone unless you let it stay that way…

Ava gritted her teeth.  It had been almost eleven years, yet here he was, looking at her with the same bright, innocent eyes he’d worn in high school.  Even with five PACT fleets breathing down his neck, he still found the time to waste his energy on… her.  That fact alone that filled Ava with frustration like nothing else.  Some things about that man hadn’t changed a bit since they were in school together.

Back in her quarters, Ava flipped on her holo, accessing a folder for the first time in over a year.  Scrolling down, she looked at dozens of saved messages, some text only, some video, all meticulously dated.  Year after year, Kayto had sent her these one sided communiques; half of them she’d never even gotten around to viewing.  But she’d saved them nevertheless…

For a moment her finger hovered over the most recent one, dated only seven months ago, trembling in indecision.  Why had she saved them if she’d never bothered to view them?

“Ugh…” Ava groaned explosively, flopping into her office chair.  Thoughts like that made her head spin.  Closing the folder in a fit of frustration, she brought up her agenda, losing herself to the buzz of reports and requisitions that needed to be recorded, collated, and filed.

******

Chigara sat alone in her half darkened office, the last one to leave the research and development department of Engineering, as usual.  Not that she minded; being last to leave did afford her a degree of privacy for some more… personal interests.

Chigara spooled through the day’s security camera footage, scanning for one person in particular.  It had started innocently enough; looking for the Captain as a way to familiarize herself with Sunrider’s security systems, but lately, Chigara found herself looking over security footage for no reason other than for the smile it brought to her lips.  Of course, if anyone else were to find out… Chigara’s insides twisted in shame at the very thought of being caught drooling over the Captain like a stalker.

“Oooohhhhh….”

“EAH!” Chigara slammed the pause key on the camera roll and spun around in terror, white as a sheet.  “C-Claude?!?”

“Reviewing the security camera footage again?” Claude gave a tinkling giggle as she leaned in with interest.  “My, my, always so hard at work…”

“Uhh…” Chigara mumbled, flustered beyond words by Claude’s surprise attack.

“He comes up right here, at the sixty minute mark!” Claude gushed, reaching over Chigara and spooling the footage to show a view of Kayto walking down the hall, his face serious and focused as he read a report on his holo.  “There we are!” she cried in a sing-song voice.

As Claude drooled a little, Chigara giggled quietly into her hand.  The unabashed way Claude wore her affections and interests on her sleeve made her a bit jealous, but Chigara admired her for it just as much.  As the two of them stared at Kayto’s face, now magnified on the screen, Chigara wondered if she’d ever have the courage to express herself like Claude.

“Seriously… what are you two doing over there?” asked Icari, poking her head in as she heard the giggling from Chigara’s office.  Putting down a tool she’d come to Engineering for, she walked around Chigara’s desk as the blue haired girl gave a peep of further embarrassment and sank further into her chair.

Taking one look at the screen, Icari threw back her head, laughing loudly.  “HAHAHA!”  Doubling over, Icari clutched her stomach, looking at Claude and Chigara with eyes swimming with tears.  “I already knew Claude had bad taste in men, but you too, Chigara?  What do you see in that loser anyways?  He’s just a rich, spoiled schoolboy.  I-it’s not like anyone could seriously like him, r-right?” said Icari, trailing off with a defiant look in her eyes.

“Mmmm…” Chigara’s eyes were glued to the screen.  “The Captain’s always doing what’s best for the crew, but there’s something lonely and empty about him… I… I want to help.  So that he doesn’t have to be alone anymore…”

“Ah…” Claude sighed happily.  “The purity and innocence of a maiden’s first love…”

“M-maiden’s… l-love?!” Chigara stuttered, turning red and waving her hands wildly.

“HA!”  Icari threw an arm around Chigara’s shoulders.  “It’s nothing a wild night at Stardust wouldn’t fix!  A few hard drinks, some pounding bass, we’ll blast that innocence right out of your head and make you a real woman!”

“S-stop it!” Chigara puffed out her cheeks and shook her head.  “T-the Captain doesn’t like women like t-that…”

“Heh… you’re hopeless,” Icari flicked her long ponytail behind her.  “What men Really want is a woman who’ll take control, toss him down, get on top, and-”

Claude bumped Icari out of the way with her curvy hip, clapping her hands over Chigara’s ears protectively.  “Don’t corrupt our pure maiden, Icari!”

“Oh sure,” Icari rolled her eyes, “Like you’ve got anything better to say!”

“You’d better make a move fast, Chigara!” Claude sang into Chigara’s ear from behind her chair.  “Otherwise I’m going to snatch him away from you~”

“It’s going to have to be a pretty good move,” commented Icari with a predatory smile.  “The Commander’s got him on a pretty tight leash.  N-not that I’ve been thinking about it or anything,” Icari turned pink and tried her best to look aloof.

“Oooohhhh… someone’s jealous~” Claude’s eyes twinkled mischievously.  “Could our schoolboy have thawed even the cold blooded mercenary’s frozen heart?”

“S-shut up!”  Icari crossed her arms huffily.  “Y-you don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. I- hey, wait a minute,” Icari’s eyes narrowed as she looked at the security screen, which had switched back to real time.  “Who’s that?”

“Don’t change the subject, Icari, we were just getting to the good part…” Claude said, invading her personal space.

“Drop it, you floozy,” answered Icari, shoving Claude back to the other side of Chigara.  “I’m being serious; isn’t that the Alliance spy?”

Chigara frowned, tapping the keyboard rapidly, enhancing the image and zooming in where Icari was pointing.  Sure enough, Kryska’s face came into focus, her eyes darting around suspiciously as she checked that the coast was clear.

“What’s she doing?” muttered Chigara.  “That’s one of the warp core terminals…”

“Look!” Icari pointed as Kryska drew a black box from her uniform, popping the terminal’s access panel open and plugging the slim device into the terminal’s wiring.  “We’ve got to do something!”

Without waiting for an answer, Icari jumped up, a pistol suddenly appearing in her hands.  Sprinting out of the room, Chigara at her heels, Icari snapped her bracelet up to her mouth.  “Captain, Captain!  We need you down in Engineering, right away!”

As the two disappeared around the corner, Claude dallied for a moment before happily taking Chigara’s seat.  “Now it’s just me and you, Captain~!”

******

“Step away from that computer, Lieutenant.”  Icari pointed her gun at the back of Kryska’s head as she knelt by the gutted terminal.  “If you even think about pulling something, you’re going to wind up a few fries short of a happy meal.”

Behind Icari, Chigara hovered nervously, eyes flicking between the barrel of Icari’s gun and the violated terminal by Kryska.

“Put your hands up, turn around and step away from the computer slowly,” ordered Icari.  “Chigara, check it out.”

Kryska did as she was bade, allowing Chigara to examine the device she attached.  Frowning, Chigara whipped out her holo and began to interface with it.

“You’re making a mistake,” Kryska said calmly, looking straight at Icari without remorse.

“I don’t think so,” Icari glared back at Kryska.  “Tsch.  I should have known better than to trust you Alliance types.”

“What’s going on here!?” demanded Kayto, rushing on scene, his hair messy with bed head.  Ava trailed closely behind him, her supernatural sense for something amiss aboard the Sunrider having brought her out as well.  “Everyone slow down.  Icari… take it easy with that gun.”

“Relax, Captain,” Icari’s finger tightened on the trigger by a hair.  “So long as the Lieutenant keeps both her hands where I can see them, nobody’s going to get hurt.  Chigara and I caught her snooping around, she’s attached some kind of device to that warp core terminal.”

“An unfortunate misunderstanding, Captain.” Kryska’s voice was colder than space.  “I was merely running a diagnostic scan on the ship’s performance specs so that I could formulate a tactical plan for the coming battle.”

“Chigara?” asked Kayto.

“I-it’s some kind of data copier…” Chigara tapped at her holo a bit more.  “It looks like it was trying to hack into our secure data buffers.  Maintenance logs, warp calculations, any modifications and schematics we have; this device was trying to copy all of it.”

“You’re sure of it?”

“Yes Captain,” Chigara nodded unhappily.  “I’m afraid so.  We also have surveillance evidence of the Lieutenant placing the device.  There’s no question.”

Kayto rubbed his brow with frustration.  Of all the times something like this could happen.  With five PACT fleets inbound, he could not afford to have the crew at each other’s throats or looking over their shoulders every five minutes.  “Look, people… we’re all supposed to be on the same side here.”

“She’s a spy, Alliance Black Ops!” Icari’s forearm tensed.  “Captain, let me take her down to the brig before she gets the chance to slit our throats or something.  These people are accountable to no one and they don’t care who gets in the way of their mission parameters.”

“For the record, the Alliance does not have a Black Ops division,” growled Kryska, hackles raised.

“Sure, and I’m Chigara’s fairy god mother,” Icari spat.  “Don’t give me that bullshit company line; I’ve done enough jobs for you people to know you don’t mind getting your hands dirty.  What kind of self-respecting military doesn’t have a Black Ops?”

“The kind that tolerates and hires freelancers like yourself, Ms. Isidolde,” sniped back Kryska as Icari flushed slightly.

Kayto was about to open his mouth to say something when a wailing klaxon sounded through the ship.

“Damn!” Ava jumped, consulting her bracelet.  “Captain; it’s a proximity alert; PACT forces are dropping out of warp!”

“Of all the-” Kayto ground his teeth.  “All right, stow it people.  We’ll sort this out after we’re done being shot at by the PACT fleet.  Man your stations, NOW!” he barked.

With one last glare, Icari holstered her pistol before turning to run for the Ryder hanger, Chigara and Kryska at her heels.

 

CHAPTER 18>>>>