Chapter 18- First Arrival

“Sitrep!” Kayto demanded as he dropped into the Captain’s seat.

Ava strapped in beside him, tapping furiously at her monitors.  “Massive energy signatures approximately ten thousand kilometers dead ahead.  I’m reading over six hundred individual sensor spikes, Captain…”

Kayto clenched a fist.  That was nearly a hundred ships in excess of what their projections had initially suggested; his fleet would be outnumbered more than six to one.  Keying the comms to the Ryder hanger, Kayto paged Asaga.  “Asaga, status!”

“Ready and waitin’ Capt’n!” Asaga’s avatar activated in the CIC, not a trace of fatigue on her face.  “Give me the word and we’ll go mess ’em up!”

Unbidden, Icari’s avatar also appeared.  “Tsch… I just hope the Alliance spy doesn’t stab us in the back out there…”

“We’ll deal with that later, focus on the mission in front of us now, Icari.  I need every Ryder I have at one hundred percent.”

“Yes, Sir,” Icari nodded.

“Lieutenant Stares,” Kayto keyed her comm channel open.  The Alliance officer appeared on the CIC, her face inscrutable.  “Regardless of any other standing orders you have from your superiors, the Alliance has assured me that you will comply with my command during combat operations.  Are we going to have any problems?”

“No, Sir!” Kryska saluted.  “The Paladin is at your command, Sir!”

“Captain, we’re being hailed by the PACT flagship,” announced Ava grimly.

“Put our favorite Veniczar on.”  Kayto cut the communications with his pilots.

“BWAHAHAHA!” Cullen’s jowls quivered with glee as he snorted and let loose with a belly laugh.  Hoisting his belt around his massive girth, Cullen eyed Kayto with extreme dislike on his face.  “So… this is all the mighty Solar Alliance could muster to defend Far Port!  This will be far too easy!”

“Veniczar Porkchops,” Kayto glared at him defiantly.  “The Alliance has over one thousand ships en route; now that you’ve provoked an Alliance intervention, it’s all over for the PACT.  Your days in the Neutral Rim are numbered.”

“You fool!” Cullen chortled.  “My fleet will crush the Alliance fleets the same way they smashed through your Neutral Rim.  The future belongs to the PACT!  Not that you’ll ever see it; prepare to be slaughtered like animals, Captain.  This is goodbye.”

As Cullen’s communication cut off, Kayto turned to Ava.  “Ava, bring up our tactical situation on the main screen.”

“Aye, Captain,” Ava tapped a few keys, causing the main screen to show Far Port and the Second Fleet holding high orbit.  Their small green fleet was almost pitifully dwarfed by the size of the PACT forces, which had arrayed into five separate attack fleets.  Cullen’s main command fleet was flanked on both sides by two additional fleets which accelerated towards the Alliance Second Fleet.  Behind them, two additional reserve fleets struggled to catch up with the vanguard.

“Fleets one and two appear to be comprised of fast frigates and destroyers,” announced Ava, consulting their scans of the enemy fleet.  “Fleets three and four are almost entirely cruisers, but they’ve warped out too far behind the battle lines; ETA four hours at sublight speeds.  The fifth fleet is the PACT core; all their battleships and carriers are grouped together, along with Cullen’s flagship.”

“And the Legion?” asked Kayto.

“She’s holding position at the edge of the system,” announced Ava, no small relief in her voice.  “She appears to merely be observing the battle.”

“That’s one small blessing…” Kayto muttered.

“Captain; Cullen’s fleet has deployed in a fully offensive stance.  Judging from their deployment, fleets one and two will circle ahead of the main fleet and flank us, boxing us in as his command fleet bombards us with their battleships and overwhelms our lines with Ryders.  The cruiser fleets will likely engage in mop up operations for any ships that manage to fight their way out.” Ava projected her analysis of the battle, showing the Second Fleet penned in and annihilated by the PACT forces.  “Captain, we need to scatter now before they can encircle us; hit-and-run tactics are the only way we’ll last more than ten minutes against a fleet like that.”

“No.” Kayto tapped his lips thoughtfully, an utterly insane idea forming in his mind.

“Captain?” Ava stared at him incredulously.

“Cullen’s fleet has only engaged weakly defended Neutral Rim worlds and the Imperial Remnants since he defected during the PACT Revolution.  He’s overconfident and underestimates us, just look at the way he’s arranged his ships.”

“I don’t follow, Sir… he still outnumbers us six to one.” Ava wrinkled her brow in confusion.

“All his fleets are separated, they’re not fighting as a cohesive unit.  They might outnumber us in total, but the total number of effective ships he has is a lot fewer if we take the fight to him,” Kayto thought out loud, the plan clicking in his mind.  It was a hellishly risky idea, but… just maybe… it would be enough to turn the battle in the Alliance’s favor.

“We charge forward,” explained Kayto, taking control of the tactical screen and showing Ava his plan.  “Cullen’s never had to deal with an offensive attack before; he only knows how to overrun defenses.  By dividing his fleet into five parts, he’s left his entire command group open to attack; those battleships and carriers don’t have any protection from any of their escort ships.  The Second Fleet will warp right next to the command fleet.  The fast frigates and destroyers will overshoot us and have to circle around to engage us.  Meanwhile, we’ll commit our entire fleet to taking out Cullen’s command ships; at knife fight range, their battleships and carriers will be vulnerable to our Alliance cruisers and we’ll have the advantage.”

Ava stared at Kayto’s plan with barely concealed horror fascination.  “That’s… insane…”

“But it might just work,” answered Kayto with more confidence than ever.  The plan sounded suicidal on paper, but, by gut instinct, Kayto had a feeling this would be their only shot at saving Far Port and the Second Fleet from complete rout.

“We’ll still be right in the middle of over four hundred pissed off PACT ships,” objected Ava.  “What’s your plan for that?”

Kayto shrugged.  “We’ll have to cross that bridge when we get to it.  Ava, listen, our objective isn’t the protection of Far Port as much as it is the protection of the Alliance systems beyond it.  With their entire command fleet sunk, the PACT will have no way of coordinating an offensive into Alliance space; this is the only way we can fulfill the mission.  Hopefully it’ll also throw their fleet into enough disarray for us to engage and regroup with the Alliance reinforcements.”

“And the Legion?” asked Ava.

“Let’s just hope she’s here to watch the party,” muttered Kayto.  “If Arcadius is on board, they might not be willing to commit her to the fight.”

Ava sighed deeply and preemptively strapped down her crash harness for Kayto’s outrageous strategy.  “Let’s hope you’re right…”

“Put me through to the Second Fleet and broadcast our orders and analysis on secure channels,” ordered Kayto.

“Done.”

The main screen flickered back to show the Alliance Second Fleet, their white and green ships arrayed behind the Sunrider, standing firmly with her against the hundreds of PACT ships bearing down on them.  Mass produced to strict specifications on port worlds across Alliance space, the Alliance cruiser was a symbol of their military strength.  Built like a brick, the Alliance cruiser was designed for functionality rather than grace.  Mounting standard, mass produced deck guns and missile pods, the cruisers were, by no stretch of imagination, ever designed to face such lopsided odds, but for the close melee Kayto intended to commit them to, were perfect for the job.  Up close, the Alliance cruiser’s smaller profiles and rapid firing guns would give them a tremendous edge over the slow, cumbersome battleships they faced.

“All ships, this is Captain Kayto Shields of the Sunrider.”  Kayto licked his dry lips and swallowed his nervousness.  “The enemy is at your gate.  Today, the Alliance fights for its very survival against the PACT and you are the only ones standing between that fleet and billions of innocent lives behind you.  I’ve seen with my own eyes what the PACT does to civilian populations of conquered worlds, you know the truth as well.  For the sake of your people, for the ones you love and left behind, steel yourselves and prepare to fight as you have never fought before.  The enemy outnumbers and outguns us six to one, but they are men and women dragged from their homes and pressed into service to fight a war on foreign soil.  You are free men and women of the Solar Alliance who chose today to throw down the gauntlet and draw a line in the sand.  You are here by choice, with the knowledge that defeat is not an option for the homes and families you left behind.  You are the only ones here today with a reason to fight for and die for victory.  Today, we will not scatter in the face of their guns.  Today, we take the fight to the enemy and meet them head on!  All ships!  Prepare to warp to these coordinates on my mark!”

Sunrider’s helmsman activated their warp drives, spooling up for one of the shortest warps their engines were capable of.  Behind the Sunrider, the Alliance ships’ engines glowed as their own drives spooled up, their captains heeding Kayto’s call and committing their ships to his plan.

“All ships reporting ready, Captain,” announced Ava.  PACT fleets one and two nearing weapons range.”

On screen, the stars were blotted out by hundreds of PACT missile frigates and destroyers as they raced towards the Alliance fleet.  Thousands of missiles launched simultaneously in a terrifying salvo of indecent proportions.

“MARK!”

Sunrider’s main screen winked off for two seconds as she warped out, reappearing suddenly right in front of Cullen’s main fleet.  Dozens of PACT battleships stared down at them along the lengths of their massive forward guns.  Nearly as many carriers drifted between them, Ryders launching one after another on their long axial runways.  Judging from the sudden spike in encrypted comms traffic and the haphazard arrangement of the PACT Ryder formations, the Second Fleet had caught Cullen’s ships with their pants down.  Clearly, whatever Cullen had expected the Second Fleet to do, it was not to jump straight into the face of his primary fleet.

The PACT battleships’ primary armaments were long, axial spinal mounted kinetic drivers designed to snipe out enemy capital ships at extreme ranges.  With the Second Fleet at point blank range, however, the cumbersome ships would find it nearly impossible to slew around fast enough to bring their guns to bear on the more nimble cruisers, which would pull up beside them and force the larger ships to fall back on what backup lasers and autocannons they had available on their lateral sides.  Without a cruiser escort of their own, the PACT battleships would make for relatively easy prey for Kayto’s cruiser fleet.

Interspersed between them, the PACT carriers made for even softer targets, carrying no armaments of their own and entirely dependent on the Ryders in their hulls.  Although each carrier carried between one hundred to two hundred PACT Ryders of various types, their greatest weakness was that they could only launch two at a time along their axial runways.  Undoubtedly due to Cullen’s overconfidence, it seemed the Second Fleet had caught them while they were still in the midst of scrambling their Ryders; the vast majority of their Ryder wings were likely still aboard awaiting launch clearance.

“All ships, break formation and engage enemy ships at close range!” barked Kayto as the Second Fleet scattered at flank speed, flying straight into the PACT formation.  “Launch our Ryders and get us into the fight!”

Slipping in between the PACT formation before the battleships could get a clear shot, the lead cruisers of the Second Fleet lashed out against the nearest PACT ships in a deadly, close range melee, emptying salvo after salvo from their deck guns into the larger PACT ships’ vulnerable sides.  Dozens of Alliance Ryders dropped from their launch bays on the cruiser’s ventral side, forming up into attack wings, meeting the PACT Ryders head on in a deadly crossfire of lasers and flak.

What followed was neither subtle nor graceful as the PACT and Alliance fleets fell into the human equivalent of a screaming, clawing hand-to-hand brawl with no move too dirty or underhanded to use.  Neither side willing to consider mercy or to give quarter, both the PACT and Alliance ships slugged at each other, pummeling the other without remorse.  Entire Alliance cruisers were blasted apart by the powerful forward guns of the PACT battleships, gutted from prow to stern, but there was no stopping the rest of the Second Fleet from closing the gap.  Within minutes, dozens of the PACT’s finest and largest ships came under assault from all sides by the smaller craft, bleeding atmosphere and getting torn to shreds as the Alliance cruisers exacted a costly revenge for their downed comrades.

Missiles exploded in every direction, lasers cut deadly swaths through the battlefield, and bullets rained down on all combatants as the fight turned into pandemonium.  Ships fired every which way, missiles streaked after one another, dragging long trails of frozen propellant across the battlefield, and Alliance and PACT Ryders alike hurtled through the storm, hunting each other in a deadly game of tag.

Kayto winced in the CIC as their main screen turned white as multiple missiles impacted on an Alliance cruiser next to them, blasting gaping holes into her hull and destroying her bridge.  Out of control, the wounded Alliance Cruiser accelerated at suicidal speeds towards a nearby PACT carrier, slamming into an open launch bay and detonating as her fusion core overloaded.  Additional chain explosions rocked the ship as Ryders inside detonated, gutting the massive carrier from the inside and blowing her to hell.

The scale of destruction was astounding; within fifteen minutes of feverish fighting, no fewer than twenty Alliance cruisers, each representing nearly two hundred crew, had either been sunk outright or damaged beyond combat capabilities.  An almost equal number of PACT battleships and carriers, crewed by upwards of five hundred crew for battleships and nearly one thousand for carriers, had also been removed from combat, flensed open by the deadly close range ordinance of the Second Fleet.

“Captain!”  Ava’s voice cut through the din of proximity and weapons lock warnings; Sunrider’s sensors going haywire with so many enemy contacts at close range.  “All battle groups engaged, the PACT forces are in complete disarray!  Looks like some of them are pulling back and regrouping.”

True enough, several battleships and carriers had pulled away from the madness of the fight, struggling to realign and form a defense cordon behind a line of Ryders; among them, Cullen’s flagship.

“Don’t ease up on the pressure,” ordered Kayto.  If the PACT forces were given the opportunity to regroup, their advantage would diminish dramatically.  “Have our Ryders form up and find me local assets, we’re going to break that formation!”

“Roger that, Captain,” answered Ava.  “Firebrand and Manticore squadrons responding.”

“All ahead forward,” barked Kayto, tapping a series of commands into his tactical screen and linking with the Alliance squadrons’ tactical networks.  “All ships, Sunrider will clear a path, engage and fire at will.  Ava,” Kayto turned to his XO.  “Prepare to fire the Vanguard.”

“Aye, Sir.  Vanguard ready at your command,” answered Ava, activating the Sunrider’s deadliest armament.  “Optimal firing solution achieved.”

“Slew us around bearing five-eight, drop our z-axis by two degrees,” barked Kayto as the Sunrider’s engines answered and maneuvered the ship to its firing position.

Although the Sunrider had left Cera before testing her Vanguard Cannon and had not encountered a tactical situation where it would be of benefit since, Kayto had to admit that the Battle of Far Port was the ideal battleground for the said weapon.  With enemy ships and Ryders clustered so tightly together, the Vanguard Cannon’s destructive potential outclassed just about anything in the opposing fleet, including the mighty PACT battleships.

“Fire Vanguard!” yelled Kayto as the Vanguard Cannon attained maximum charge.

All along Sunrider’s forward length, superconducting magnetic coils came to life, giving the entire front of the ship a hellish red glow as they radiated an unbelievable amount of heat into space.  Super-heated plasma outgassed from Sunrider’s secondary reactor where the reaction mass was stored, knifing away from Sunrider’s prow, accelerated to nearly seven percent the speed of light by the magnetic superconductors along her axis.

The Ryder defense line shattered as nearly a dozen PACT Ryders disappeared before the wake of the Vanguard Cannon’s plasma beam.  Even those not immediately caught in the blast were slagged or disabled by the heat spilling off the plasma as it passed.  The surviving Ryders scattered like insects as the shot continued forward, impacting on the lead PACT battleship.

The front of the PACT battleship literally melted like a wax candle as the Vanguard Cannon’s beam touched it, its thick armor plates burning and boiling away until the plasma emerged from the other side of the ship, spearing a Carrier behind it.  While the carrier simply detonated, its thin hull having never been designed for any degree of punishment, the PACT battleship held together long enough to have its superheated atmosphere and fire blast out of its side.  Spinning like a toy, the enormous ship slammed into another battleship that had drifted too close, caving in the entire port side of the unfortunate ship before both were consumed by twin fusion reactor explosions.

Ava shielded her eyes from the hard, deadly light spilling out of the Sunrider’s main screen.  “Holy Ryuvia…”  The rest of the bridge crew muttered in astonishment as well.

“All ships and Ryders, weapons free!  Take them out before they can recover!” ordered Kayto, tapping commands for Sunrider to join the fight as well.  If there was one weakness behind the design of the Vanguard Cannon, it was the long recharge cycles between shots.  Now that the Vanguard Cannon had fired; Sunrider would be unable to use the same tactic until the plasma had been regenerated from reaction mass.

As Sunrider slugged it out with the larger ships, her Ryder wing formed up underneath her belly.

“Liberty, Bianca, Seraphim, stay back and provide support!” ordered Asaga.  “Phoenix, Paladin, let’s go; take out some of those red bastards!”

“D-damn!” Icari’s voice crackled with static.  “There’s enough laser fire out here to walk from one ship to another.”

Thrusters burning like miniature suns, Phoenix took the lead, beating a path through the hailstorm of lasers and missiles before slicing through a PACT Ryder as it screamed past.

“Watch and learn, Soldier Boy!” grinned Icari as the Phoenix pulled some of the wildest maneuvers it was capable of, drawing no fewer than fifty missiles off course with the heat of its engine emissions and managing to dodge all of them.

“Impressive piloting, Mercenary; but missiles don’t count towards kills,” Kryska thumbed her firing controls.  “I’ll show you the might of the Solar Alliance!  Safeties disengaged.”

Paladin’s shoulder cannons dropped down, pointing directly at a PACT carrier that had so far escaped engagement with any hostile forces.  Brilliant flashes emerged from the Paladin’s eight mass drivers as they discharged one after another, requiring the Paladin’s full engine output just to hold steady against the recoil.  The black ore slugs streaked forward, slamming into the PACT carrier’s open launch tubes and tearing through its hull like tissue paper.  For a moment, nothing happened.

“Hah!  All bark and no bite!” said Icari, her voice strained with the Phoenix’s acceleration, but somehow managing to grin anyways.

Suddenly, the PACT carrier began to gout flames and its engines began to flicker.  Slowly, the ship listed to port.  Explosions erupted along the sides of her hull, suggesting massive internal damage.  Atmosphere blasted out from the hanger as containment failed, venting dozens of disabled and shattered PACT Ryders.

“I’m sorry, didn’t quite hear your last transmission, Mercenary.  How many kills is that?  One carrier, plus a hundred Ryders…” Kryska grinned with menace.  “Missiles launching now, firing again.”

Two dozen missiles blasted off from the Paladin’s frame, oversized for Ryder class missiles, streaking towards the wounded carrier as Paladin’s shoulder cannons discharged again, glowing furiously with the heat of the rapid firing cycles.  Taking the entire salvo head on, the PACT carrier breathed its last and broke apart into a dozen pieces, its fragmented hull unable to withstand the damage the Paladin had inflicted upon its interior.

“Tsch…” Icari grunted, trying to suppress her astonishment.  It wasn’t every day you saw a single Ryder take out a capital ship thousands of times its own size.  Whatever the Paladin was firing, its armaments surpassed even those of the cruisers in the Second Fleet.

Apparently, the PACT thought so too; no fewer than two dozen Ryders vectored towards the Paladin, pelting Kryska’s position with missiles and lasers.

“Look out!” Icari’s Phoenix swooped in and launched several tow cables, digging into the Paladin’s rear armor plate and reeling it in so that both Ryders were back to back. Thrusters at maximum, the Phoenix dragged the Paladin away, engines heaving against the other Ryder’s weight.  “D-damn it, this thing weighs more than a cruiser!”  Even slowed down, the Phoenix managed to dodge the hailstorm of fire, allowing Paladin to nail several PACT Ryders with autocannon fire.

“Watch it!” Kryska yelled as a dozen target locks from the closest battleships painted Phoenix and Paladin’s frames.  In a perfect perpendicular firing position, the battleships had the two Ryders pinned with laser and flak fire.  Hitting her thrusters, Kryska put the two Ryders into a spin, bringing the Paladin about face in the oncoming fire, rotating Pheonix to its back.  Hefting its massive body shield, the Paladin soaked up the laser fire while firing its shoulder cannons at one of the offending ships.

“A-are you crazy?!” Icari yelled as hellish blue light flashed from her rear monitors.  Wild thermal and radiation signatures squiggled across her sensor suite as Paladin bore the entire brunt of the battleships’ assault.  Static filled the comm channel as Icari pounded her console.  “Kryska!!!”

“Stop yelling!” Kryska’s irate tone burst through the static.  “You almost blew out my speakers; lose your cool, Mercenary?”

“S-shut up,” Icari blushed deeply, taking out her frustration on several hapless PACT mooks.  “I-it’s not like I care anyways…”

“Alert!  All pilots; PACT missiles frigates and destroyers on approach to flank, bearing zero eight.  They’ll be within firing range in five minutes; all cruisers are already engaged, we need you to slow them down!” Ava’s voice broke through on the comms channel.

“Seraphim reporting,” Sola’s brittle voice answered.  “I will hold the flank.”

“Those ships are over five light seconds away!” Ava protested.  “There’s no way…”

Sola’s eye suddenly started glowing as she awakened her latent combat abilities.  Several bright cracks of light lanced out past the thick of the fighting, streaking into the distance.  Five seconds later, multiple explosions dotted the sky as the Sola’s shots connected at extreme range.

“Reloading, acquiring new targets.”  Sola’s Ryder leveled its gun into the distance before discharging its rifle again.

“Unbelievable… she’s shooting down entire frigates with a single shot…” muttered Ava in the CIC.  “Warning… PACT cruisers are coming into firing range!  The Second Fleet is taking heavy fire!”

“What’s the status on the enemy command fleet?” shouted Kayto, Sunrider rocking with impacts.

“The Second Fleet has sunk most of the command ships, but Cullen’s flagship still remains!”  Ava’s hands flew over her console as she consulted a new sensor contact.  “Captain!  I’m detecting a massive energy spike… it’s the Legion!”

“Damn!” Kayto pounded his arm rest.  He had hoped the Legion would stay out of the fight, but it seemed his worse fear would come to pass; the PACT super-dreadnought was prepared to join in the fight. “Order all ships to take immediate evasive action!”

Hellish red light filled the main screen as the Legion’s primary weapon beam discharged into the midst of the fighting.  Even at that extreme distance, the Legion’s weapon was more than powerful enough to torch any ships near its path.  Slamming indiscriminately into the PACT and Alliance fleets alike, the Legion’s shot narrowly missed the Sunrider but took out nearly a dozen of Kayto’s remaining cruisers along with two disabled PACT battleships and an innumerable number of Ryders from both sides.

“Arcadius, you insane son-of-a-bitch!” Kayto was horrified at the casual way the Legion had sacrificed her own ships and pilots in order to take a shot at his fleet.

“Hiakili squad annihilated!  Taylor squad is down to three cruisers!” reported Ava, equally shocked at the casual disregard for human life shown by the Legion.

“Merge Taylor squad with Arturia!  Have all ships scatter and close distance with PACT ships; don’t let them fire another shot without taking twice as many of their own ships!” ordered Kayto, sacrificing his fleet’s integrity in the hopes of discouraging the Legion from firing its primary armament again.

“Captain!  The Second Fleet’s almost on the verge of rout; we can’t hold our position much longer,” reported Ava grimly.

“Then let’s finish the job,” Kayto tapped orders into his tactical screen.  “We’ve got to take Cullen’s flagship out, then we can disengage!”

As if he could hear their conversation, Cullen’s avatar suddenly appeared on the CIC.  Even though he was sweaty and pale-looking with confusion swirling behind his piggy eyes, he managed to puff out his chest and take heart in the Legion’s sudden entrance into the battle.  “Captain!” he bellowed.  “This battle is far from over!  Prepare to die!”

“Multiple hits on forward decks!” reported Ava as Sunrider shuddered angrily and sparks flew from overloaded conduits in the CIC.  “Captain!  Cullen’s flagship is targeting us with everything it has!”

“Your pathetic ship is no match for mine!” chortled Cullen, glee in his eyes.  “There’s no way you can overcome my armor before I sink your rat-infested vessel!”

Gritting his teeth, Kayto tried to think furiously of a way to get Sunrider out of her predicament.  Even with her Saviors and Trinities firing so fast that their cooling systems were liable to catastrophic failure, it seemed Cullen was right; his flagship was simply too large and too well-armed to be taken down quickly enough.

“As if I’ll let you!” Asaga’s brash voice butted in on the CIC.

“Captain!  Black Jack is accelerating towards the Veniczar’s flagship!” reported Ava, panic cracking the edges of her voice.  “Asaga’s going in alone!”

“Asaga!” Chigara’s avatar appeared, looking horrified.  “You can’t!”

“EAAHHH!!!!” Asaga screamed as the Black Jack rocketed past overlapping fields of flak fire, somehow dodging through the hailstorm intact.

“What do you plan to do with that tiny Ryder!?” laughed Cullen.  “Intensify forward batteries, don’t let her through!”

“Captain!” Chigara shouted in surprise.  “Asaga’s undone all safety limits on her engines and lasers!”

“Asaga!!!” Kayto yelled, terrified as Black Jack flew towards the flagship at speeds exceeding even those of the Phoenix.

The flak turrets on Cullen’s ship fired wildly, straining to track the Ryder, but their software had no way of keeping up with the Black Jack’s speed as it streaked straight for the ship’s command deck.

“Don’t… Mess… WITH ME!!!!”

Kayto was taken aback by the pilot’s sudden scream as her eyes widened.  Bright blue light awakened behind one of her eyes, similar to the effect he’d seen Sola use when overriding the Seraphim’s safety limiters.  Asaga’s avatar stared forward with deadly intent, her face in a serious grimace filled with burning fury that Kayto had never seen the typically cheerful pilot wear.

On the main screen, Black Jack’s frame was engulfed in pure, almost white light as Asaga discharged her Ryder’s shoulder lasers straight into the command deck, not two hundred meters from the window.

“My Beautiful Reward… EAAAAHHHH!!!!  NO!  NOOOO!!!!” Cullen’s face glowed with the light of Asaga’s incoming laser fire, issuing a high pitched scream as his avatar disappeared.

The entire flagship’s command deck exploded in brilliant light as Black Jack’s lasers cut through the bridge, wiping out the entire command crew.  Angling her cannons downwards, Asaga’s lasers sawed into the ship, cutting through deck after deck and leaving ragged trenches where her lasers touched.

“ASAGA!” Chigara screamed, red lights flashing in her face as her Ryder scanned the Black Jack’s overloaded systems.  “STOP!!!  Black Jack can’t take anymore!!!”

Blasting off from the Liberty’s back, Chigara’s repair drones swarmed towards the Black Jack, which continued indiscriminately pumping laser shots into Cullen’s sinking flagship.  On reaching Black Jack, the drones immediately deployed laser cutters, slicing off the laser cannons while other drones latched onto the four barrels, dragging the severed weapons away moments before they detonated spectacularly.

“Enemy flagship sunk!” reported Ava, eyes wide at the unfolding drama.  “PACT forces are in complete rout!”

“Liberty!  Have your drones tow Asaga’s Ryder back now!  Use a remote shutdown if you have to!” bellowed Kayto as Black Jack struggled furiously against the repair drones before turning limp as Chigara forced a shutdown of its systems.

“Second Fleet is down to eighteen operation ships, Captain!” shouted Ava.  “We’ve lost more than two thirds of the fleet; we can’t take any more of this!”

“Scatter the fleet, have all ships perform emergency warps to their fallback coordinates!  We’ve done all we can here!” ordered Kayto.  “All Ryders, return to Sunrider.  Initiate hard combat landings!”

Sunrider’s ventral bay opened up as her Ryders came crashing home.

“Bianca, Liberty, Black Jack, and Seraphim on board!” reported Ava.

“Where’s Icari and Kryska!?”  Kayto asked furiously.  “Don’t warp until we confirm all Ryder pilots aboard.”

“Captain!  Half our sections are venting atmosphere!  Sunrider’s hull integerity is poor; we’ll break apart if we stay any longer!”

“No one gets left behind!” snapped Kayto.  “Phoenix, Paladin, do you copy?!”

“…nix coming in!” Icari’s strained voice grated over the comms.  “Damn, the Paladin’s heavy!”

Main screens affixed their view on Icari and Kryska’s Ryders.  Paladin was slumped and trailing smoke, sporting hundreds of laser marks and impact craters from bullets as the Phoenix dragged it furiously towards the Sunrider, both Ryders tangled up in a mess of tow cables.

“Leave the Paladin, Mercenary!  You can still make it!” shouted Kryska.

“F-forget it!” Icari practically screamed back.  “Phoenix can do it!”

Overriding her safeties as well, Icari pushed the Pheonix’s engines past her engine redlines, squeezing ever last ounce of thrust out of her beleaguered Ryder.  Multiple warning lights and alarms activated as the Phoenix’s reactor started to destabilize.

“Phoenix, you’ve got two mooks on your back!” shouted Ava.

“D-damn!” Icari silenced the alarms and pushed her systems even further as sparks flew in her cockpit.  A sudden explosion rocked her entire cabin as nearly a dozen other alarms set off.

Outside the Phoenix, the intense heat and thrust of Icari’s hard burn heated her external thusters to a white hot glow.  Suddenly, twin explosions coughed out of the main thrusters as the heat became too much for her systems to bear, blasting the Heratium coated exhaust ports clear off the Ryder.  Exploding, the two engine manifolds shredded the two PACT Ryders into a thousand pieces as razor sharp Heratium filaments cut them down as effectively as armor piercing rounds.

“AAARRGGGHH!” Icari and Kryska screamed as their combined Ryders blasted into Sunrider’s hanger, tumbling wildly as magnetic grapples struggled to decelerate them fast enough to prevent them from smashing into pieces on the hanger’s far wall.

“Insufficient distance to decelerate!” shouted Ava as the two Ryders punched past the several hundred meter length of the hanger in a split second.

Paladin suddenly flipped over, rear engines blazing as Kryska struggled to overcome their combined inertia.  “Hold on!!!” she screamed as the two Ryders plummeted towards the far wall.  With a crunch, the Paladin slammed into the wall, Phoenix landing on top of it.

“Get us out of here!” shouted Kayto.  “All ships, general retreat!”

“WAIT!” Ava shouted “Massive energy spike detected behind us!  It’s the Alliance!”

From behind, space teased apart as hundreds of emerald and white ships suddenly dropped out of warp on top of the PACT fleet.  Without so much as a moment’s hesitation, the entire fleet opened fire.  Thousands of missiles streaked forward, blowing apart dozens of PACT frigates and destroyers before they could even register the sudden appearance of the Alliance reinforcements.  As the smaller ships scattered, thrown into complete disarray, the Alliance fleet barreled forward, hundreds of Ryders deploying from massive carriers and dozens of battleships firing long range cannons at what was left of Cullen’s core fleet.

“Captain.” Admiral Grey’s avatar appeared on the CIC, flickering with distortion from Sunrider’s damaged systems.  “I commend you for holding out this long against such odds.  The First Fleet is here to relieve your forces.”

“Admiral,” Kayto nodded with relief.  “We’d be glad for the assistance, Sir!”

“All ships!” barked the Admiral, addressing his fleet.  “Show those red bastards the strength of the Emerald Fleet.  Cover what’s left of the Second Fleet and provide assistance to any damaged Alliance vessel, I don’t want the PACT taking a single shot at any of the heroes who held Far Port with their blood and determination!  All ships, Fire!”

******

“Veniczar,” Fontana bowed, face pale as he and Arcadius observed the unfolding slaughter from the observation deck of the Legion.  “Cullen’s fleet has been annihilated.  Our forces are in complete disarray and in full retreat from the Alliance forces.”

“Fool, we have long suspected his incompetence.”  Arcadius’s high voice trembled with fury.

“Two hundred fresh Alliance ships from the First Fleet.  More are en route according to our spies” Fontana stared at his bracelet’s readout with distaste etched on his face.  “Shall I command the Legion and our reserve forces to engage?”

Arcadius paused for a moment, watching explosions dot the sky in front of the Legion.  “No.”  Turning towards Fontana, Arcadius’s rage radiated in palpable waves.  “This battle no longer favors us.  Order our forces to fall back.  We will join them.”

“Yes, Veniczar,” Fontana bowed deeply and strode from the deck to coordinate the retreat from the Legion’s CIC.

Alone, Arcadius continued to watch as the survivors of the battle warped away, fleeing the fury of the Emerald Fleet as it pressed forward.  Of the nearly six dozen battleships and carriers Cullen’s fleet had started out with, fewer than twenty managed to perform emergency warp jumps from the carnage.  Hundreds of smaller ships, cruisers, destroyers, and frigates also warped out, leaving nothing but the husks of dead ships and thousands of escape pods in their wake.

“This loss is irrelevant,” Arcadius’s hands clenched into fists.  “Soon, the galaxy shall see the power of what we accomplished at Diode and tremble before us!”

Mad laughter echoed unheard on the Legion’s observation deck as the super-dreadnought spun its own drives and dove into darkness.

******

“Asaga!” Chigara face was pale as she clambered onto Black Jack’s prone form and popped the emergency hatch release lever from its recessed housing.  Pulling the lever with all her might and rotating it clockwise, Black Jack’s pilot hatch hissed open loudly, pneumatic systems struggling against the battered door.  “Asaga!”

“Ugh…” Asaga’s voice groaned out from the darkened cockpit.  “Where am I?”

Chigara’s knees almost buckled with relief.  Throwing herself headfirst into the Ryder, Chigara re-emerged with Asaga’s arm pulled over her shoulder, supporting the bewildered and dazed pilot as they staggered from Black Jack’s damaged frame.

“Whoa!” Asaga’s voice sounded slurred as her legs wobbled, sending the two of them tumbling to the hanger deck.  “Why are mah lips so… blobby?”

“I-is Asaga alright?” Chigara looked at her friend fearfully as Asaga rolled on the floor, drooling slightly and rubbing her cheek against the metal deckplates.

“The first Awakening is always the most difficult,” Sola’s quiet voice came from behind them, making Chigara jump.

“Will it go away?” Chigara asked.

“Yes, she merely needs to rest,” Sola shrugged before dropping to the deck as well, leaning her head back against the Black Jack’s soot covered frame, breathing hard.  “As do I…”

“That’s incredible…” Chigara sounded awed.  “I’ve never seen a Ryder respond like that to a pilot…”

“Gene modifications can only take you so far,” Sola closed her eyes, seemingly drifting in and out of sleep herself.  “Nanomachines allow us to interface directly with Ryder systems.  The human brain becomes a secondary computer, allowing Ryders to compensate and push their limits beyond what is normally acceptable, for a time at least.  Nanites from Asaga’s mother and her mother before her must have passed through the generations…”

“That makes sense,” Chigara said with curiosity.  “I suppose the extra processing power can be used for microadjustments to reactor and weapon output that would normally be unthinkable… the toll must be incredible…”

Turning to look at the two Ryuvian princesses, Chigara found that both Asaga and Sola had fallen asleep, Sola looking far more dignified than Asaga, who drooled happily onto the deck.

“Oh dear… I suppose I should find some way to move them…” Chigara said nervously, hovering over the two, but smiling all the same.

Across the bay, Icari and Kryska struggled to pull themselves free of their smoking Ryders as well.

“Ugh…” Icari flopped out of the Phoenix like a fish as Kryska staggered from the Paladin’s hatch, both of them collapsing onto the deck, sitting back to back.  “I… can’t believe… we made it…” panted Icari.

“We make… quite the team… Ms. Isidolde,” answered Kryska, gulping for air just as hard, pushing a sweaty lock of hair out of her eyes.  “It was pleasure to fight alongside you.”

“I guess you’re a pretty good shot too… Call me Icari, I never liked formality,” Icari tried to wave her hand dismissively, but the gesture was too much trouble.  Leaning back, fatigue taking over, Icari felt Kryska’s head loll as well, the two of them leaning against each other, heads side by side, to stay upright.

“Well, well,” Kayto and Ava emerged from the lift, taking in the sight of the exhausted Ryder wing and walking up to Icari and Kryska who were closest.  Coughing slightly with all the smoke in the air, Kayto nevertheless offered a giant grin to his crew.  “You two seem to be getting along for a change.”

“Captain!” Kryska struggled to her feet as Icari fell over sideways, grumbling.  “I apologize for my actions before the battle, Sir!  I fully expect to be escorted to the brig by Commander Crescentia now that the crisis has passed.”

“That won’t be necessary.”  Kayto gave a weary smile.  “I’ll make sure Chigara forwards you the data you were looking for.  It seems to me like we’re going to be a team from now on.  We need to start learning to trust each other like you and Icari have.  If we get anything done, it’s going to be together.  Next time you need something like that, just ask first.”

“Sir!” Kryska saluted with a happy expression on her face.  “Understood!  Next time my superiors wish for information, I will personally inform you, Sir!”

“Save the sentimentality,” grumbled Icari, struggling to her feet as well and glaring at Kayto.  “J-just because we fly well together doesn’t mean we’re friends or anything.  W-we’re just working together.  For now!”

“Oooohhhh…” Claude’s dreamy voice floated over as she caught the scent of drama.  “Looks like someone’s blushing~”

“S-shut up!” Icari pointed a threatening finger at the pink haired pilot.  “It’s only so that we can beat the PACT!”

“I knew you were a bit that way!” Claude giggled with lust in her eyes.  “My, my, this entire ship’s turning into quite the love nest… ufufu~”

Kayto and Ava turned away as Icari screamed and lunged at Claude who happily danced out of the way and led the exhausted mercenary on a chase around the hanger.

“Hard to believe this was just an empty hanger when we left Cera,” remarked Kayto as the two of them walked.

“You said you’d gather allies from across the galaxy,” Ava smiled broadly.  “Looks like you did, after a fashion.”

Kayto grinned.  “I did, didn’t I?”

“Don’t get too full of yourself, Captain,” warned Ava, half-serious.  “This is only the first battle of the war, we’ve got a long way to go.”

“Hard to take you seriously when you’re grinning ear-to-ear like that,” ribbed Kayto as Ava flushed.

“I-I am Not grinning ear-to-ear!” protested Ava, crimson faced.  “Mmou…”  Face softening, Ava gave into the emotion, rewarding Kayto with a shy, bare smile before she looked away quickly.  “Well done, Captain… well done…”

******

“But I still await the completion of you paperwork.”

CHAPTER 19 >>>>